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Procedure for assessing mink welfare can be simplified

Assessment of mink welfare on individual mink farms can probably be simplified, by for example reducing the number of inspections from three to two. The mink farmer can use the results to optimise the conditions for the animals and to reveal whether the animals are thriving.

[Translate to English:] Minkens velfærd kan vurderes ved hjælp af en række fastlagte kriterier. Foto: Janne Hansen

Animal welfare is a topic that often surfaces in the public debate and an area that farmers are interested in optimising. A correct assessment of how the animals thrive in relation to their needs is the best starting point for any discussion and any action on animal welfare.

European mink production has put the assessment of the animals’ welfare into a framework. This is done using WelFur-Mink, which is a systematic, unbiased and research-based procedure. WelFur is built upon the European welfare assessment system Welfare Quality®, which in many ways is seen as the gold standard for assessment of animal welfare in Europe. The assessments in WelFur are based on information obtained from three annual visits to the mink farm. Each visit typically takes a full day.

Research at Aarhus University has shown that it may be possible to simplify the welfare assessment at the individual farm by reducing the number of annual visits from three to two. This assessment is based on an analysis of how the different phases of the mink’s annual reproduction cycle contribute to the overall picture of animal welfare.

- Assessment of welfare on the farms three times a year is time-consuming and expensive. Simplification of procedures can improve this. We found that it may be possible to reduce the number of measurements taken at the different production stages without compromising on the quality of the assessment, says Research Assistant Britt I. F. Henriksen from the Department of Animal Science at Aarhus University. She carried out the study as part of her recently completed PhD study.

- WelFur, however, is going to be used throughout Europe and we therefore have to know whether the results can be applied to the entire European mink production before a simplification of the WelFur-Mink procedure can be implemented, she adds.

The mink farm has seasonal variations

It is important that the inspections take place during the relevant phases of the mink’s reproduction cycle. In the current system, the WelFur assessments follow the three natural main phases.

 The three phases are the winter period where the breeding animals are prepared for mating, the reproduction period where the animals are mated and the females give birth and raise the kits, and the growth period where the weaned kits grow and finally produce a winter coat.

- There are different challenges in relation to welfare, both within and between the three production phases, says Britt F. Henriksen.

In winter there is the risk that the animals become too thin because they need to lose weight after the growth period to prepare for mating. In the reproduction period the greatest welfare risks are that lactating females become very thin because of the energy spent on milk production and that kits are injured as a result of internal fighting. In the growth period there is the risk that animal welfare is affected by biting, especially if minks are grouped rather than paired.

Number of inspections and parameters can be reduced

The results suggest that welfare assessments in the reproduction and growth periods provide sufficient information to calculate the general welfare throughout the year and that an assessment in the winter period can be omitted. However, carrying out just one annual visit is not sufficient to give a representative picture of animal welfare on the farm.

The results also suggest that the number of welfare parameters of the different periods can be reduced. In the current system the values for a total of 12 parameters are recorded at each of the three annual visits. The 12 parameters are grouped under four headings: good feeding, good housing, good health and appropriate behaviour.

In the study, particularly the assessment of the criteria "absence of prolonged hunger", "comfort around resting" and "thermal comfort" in the reproduction period showed a strong correlation to the overall annual welfare evaluation. There was likewise a correlation between values for "absence of disease" and "good human-animal relationship/positive emotional state" during the growth period and the overall assessment for the whole year.

- Based on these results, it may be possible for some of the parameters to be assessed in just one of the periods and to reduce the number of visits from three to two, says Britt I. F. Henriksen.

Read the article "Classification of animal welfare on mink farms differs between three annual production periods" in the scientific journal Animal Welfare.

More results

Influence of the day of assessment

In her PhD study Britt I. F. Henriksen has also worked with how an assessment of mink welfare in the reproduction period, based on WelFur-Mink, can be dependent on the day of assessment within the period. She found that there is a risk of change in scores from the beginning and to the end of the period, and that this should be taken into account in future classification of farms.

Read the article ”The reliability of welfare assessment according to the WelFur-protocol in the nursing period of mink (Neovison vison) is challenged by increasing welfare problems prior to weaning” in the scientific journal Animal Welfare.

Stable schools in mink produktion

The PhD study was also about how stable schools can be a tool for mink breeders to improve farm management for the benefit of mink welfare. Stable schools are discussion groups between farmers working towards a common goal by systematically giving each other farm specific advice. The results show that the farmers were generally very positive to the structurally way of working in stable schools, but the uniform production system at mink farms gives special challenges  in how to work with the different subjects to ensure farmer ownership of the process.

Read the article ”Farmers’ perception of stable schools as a tool to improve management for the benefit of mink welfare” in the scientific journal Livestock Science.

For further information 

Research assistent Britt F. Henriksen
Department of Animal Science
E-mail: britt.henriksen@anis.au.dk
Phone: 8715 1223