Animal Welfare

Role of Organic Standards in Animal Welfare

Organic Standards include specific animal welfare measures, but many people, including organic farmers, believe that they should go further. Organic Standards are by their nature dynamic and are constantly improving. They are designed to set the lower limit of acceptable methods for certification, not to prescribe best practices.

In 2005, the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada established the Animal Welfare Task Force to disseminate the latest information and thinking on animal welfare to farmers and others in the organic industry with the aspiration of raising the bar for animal welfare in organic agriculture.

Some Helpful Guidelines

Shelter & Housing

A general principle of organic production is that livestock living conditions must be conducive to the animal’s health and natural behaviour. When kept inside or confined in pens, even if only for short periods of time, animals must have adequate space to lie down, groom normally, turn around, stretch their limbs and engage in normal social behaviours. Minimum space requirements are set out in Organic Standards.

Access to the outdoors is a key tenet of organic production systems. Ruminants are required to be on pasture during the grazing season and all livestock, including pigs and poultry, must have access to outdoor runs throughout the year. Organic Standards do provide exceptions based on life cycle stage, weather and health. Other factors may also impact a farmer’s ability to provide access to outdoors, including threats to biosecurity. Occasionally, as in the case of increased risk of disease transmission from wild animals, provincial or marketing board authorities will require animals to be kept indoors and these laws take precedence over Organic Standards.

When animals are kept outdoors, they need some protection from the elements in winter and summer. This can be provided by trees, windbreaks or by specially constructed portable shelters. Even in harsh winters, large animals can remain outside if they have protection from cold winds and extreme conditions. Shade in summer is equally important. When temperatures rise above 26°C (80°F) and the humidity is more than 50-70%, most species can suffer heat stress, but pigs and young livestock are the most sensitive. Plenty of clean cool drinking water will help the animals cope. Fluid intake can increase by up to 30% on hot days.

Stocking Rates

The Canadian Organic Standards specify maximum stocking densities. Actual stocking rates will vary from farm to farm as a function of the carrying capacity of the land, which in turn is determined by the amount of forage in a pasture and the area available to spread manure.

Reducing Stress

“Stress” is a broad term used to describe the negative impacts of husbandry practices on livestock. Potential sources of stress include non-optimal stocking rates, poor nutrition, temperature extremes, parasites, lack of shade and pain during handling or medical procedures. Stress can also occur when animals are unable to pursue natural behaviours. Stress results in disease and in behaviour that can make livestock difficult to handle. Ultimately, it results in economic losses due to weight loss, decline in meat quality, higher veterinary bills and even increases in livestock mortality.

Organic Livestock Handbook, 2nd Ed. by Laura Telford and Anne Macey