Providing more room in group housing for horses raised for meat production would bring about welfare improvements, according to Italian researchers.
Not enough effort is being made to safeguard the welfare of horses reared for meat, Frederica Raspa and her colleagues at the University of Turin wrote in the open-access journal Animals.
“These horses are kept in intensive breeding farms where they are housed in group pens at high stock densities and fed high amounts of concentrates.”
More than half a million horses are slaughtered in Europe each year for meat production, they noted.
“In the past, most horse meat was derived from the slaughter of horses at the end of their working lives, whereas, nowadays, horse meat is mainly obtained from the specific breeding of heavy draft breeds. Farms breeding horses for meat primarily rear young horses.”
To increase meat production, intensive farming systems are used.
“However, concerns about animal welfare related to overcrowding and intensive feeding regimes have been raised over intensive farming systems.
“High-density group housing can negatively affect horse welfare, influencing both their health and behaviour.”
To obtain fast increases in body weight, breeders often feed the animals a high-starch diet, which can affect intestinal health.
The study team set out to evaluate the effects of stocking density on horse welfare.
They conducted their work at a single horse farm designed for meat production. The farm is one of the biggest horse breeding farms for meat production in northern Italy, sending 2000 animals a year to slaughter.
One automatic drinker providing tap water was available in each pen. The floors were concrete and covered with barley straw bedding once a day to a depth of about 15cm.
The pens were all in a barn with two open sides. The horses had no access to any outdoor paddock area.
The horses were not fed on an individual basis. Instead, twice a day, each pen was provided with meadow hay (about 6kg per animal per day) and an amount of pelleted feed equal to 8kg per animal per day.
In all, the researchers carried out seven surveys of the same 12 group-housing pens at the farm, but on each occasion, the horses in the pens had been changed, as had the stocking densities.
In all, 561 horses with an average age of 16 months were evaluated, with a focus on two stocking densities — 3.95 sq metres per horse (which was the median among the surveyed stock) and a more generous 4.75 square metres, which was the 75th percentile.
The study team found that when the horses had more than 4.75 square metres per animal, there were improvements in terms of coat cleanliness, bedding quantity, and the condition of their manes and tails. More room also meant they spent less time resting in a standing position. Feeding improvements were also seen, with more space available at the feeding area.
The median number of thinner horses in pens was found to be higher when the enclosures were more densely populated. Coughing was significantly more common, too, when the pen populations were denser.
Discussing their findings, the study team acknowledged that the assessment of animal welfare is a multidimensional and complex procedure.
They said their work represented the first scientific attempt to assess the welfare of horses reared for meat production at a farm level.
“The data obtained show the need to understand more about the welfare of those animals, stimulating further investigations to elucidate the minimum space allowance per horse in a group pen required to generate improvements in horse welfare.
“Measures are also needed to improve the feeding management regimes used, which should consider the nutritional requirements and welfare of the horses and not just production goals.”
The key concerns were stocking densities and feed management regimes.
“The results of the present study suggest that horse welfare is negatively affected by high stocking densities and the use of an intensive feeding management strategy.”
Many welfare parameters improved when the horses had more than 4.75 square metres per horse. But even more space or changes in management regimes may be necessary to improve all welfare indicators.
“The horses of this study were fed rations rich in starch, which was probably responsible for the high incidence of diarrhea and, consequently, the poor state of bedding cleanliness.”
The study team said their findings highlighted the need for developing specific guidelines and rules for farming equines in order to safeguard their welfare.
“Moreover, since there is a lack of science-based minimum requirements for space allowance and feeding space for group-housed horses, this work hopes to stimulate and encourage further scientific inquiries into the management practices applied in horse farms for meat production.”
The study team comprised Raspa, Martina Tarantola, Domenico Bergero, Claudio Bellino, Chiara Maria Mastrazzo, Alice Visconti, and Emanuela Valle, all with the University of Turin; Ermenegildo Valvassori, with the Public Veterinary Service in Piedmont; and Ingrid Vervuert, with Leipzig University in Germany.
Raspa, F.; Tarantola, M.; Bergero, D.; Bellino, C.; Mastrazzo, C.M.; Visconti, A.; Valvassori, E.; Vervuert, I.; Valle, E. Stocking Density Affects Welfare Indicators in Horses Reared for Meat Production. Animals 2020, 10, 1103.