Brown and black cows standing side by side in a field
Cows standing in a line

Case Study: Sustainability and ethics of the agricultural enterprise

Sustainability is a concept connected to the possibility of future generations to access the same resources of the present generations, honouring a sort of generational pact.

A sustainable farm must be able to leave future generations a clean environment and a reserve of resources sufficient to renew the possibility of living and feeding. The sustainability of livestock breeding has a very important ethical connotation: it is an activity that involves other living species and has the fundamental mission of producing healthy food that meets the primary need to feed an increasingly populated world.

The management of animal husbandry has traditionally developed in harmony with the environment and with the animals bred, because only through respect for the soil and the animals will the breeder receive a profit from their work. This harmony risks interruption from farms that do not respect the primordial agreement of mutual respect and adopt farming practices contrary to professional ethics.

Is a sustainable and ethical intensive farming possible? The answer is yes.

Thanks to ethology and animal health research; technological progress; and the diffusion of a new perspective that considers breeding as a unique production process that is simultaneously conditioned by multiple factors interacting with each other, it is now possible to give practical indications on how to build and manage the optimal husbandry that provides animals with the utmost respect for their ethology; creates hygienic conditions to prevent the spread of diseases on farms; and ensures maximum environmental sustainability (meant as production of greenhouse gases, pollutants related to manure management, water and energy consumption).

Choosing the mating plan closer to the breeder’s management abilities and farm resources with a sire analyst

It may be worth it to turn down high yield production preferring functional, reproductive end health traits selection in order to breed easier animals, earning not on milk yield but on management savings.

Choosing the best buildings and facilities to make housing comfortable to animals with an animal husbandry technician

Easily accessible indoor and outdoor spaces able to satisfy an animal’s need for socialisation, resting and shelter from extreme weather conditions. Well lit up and aired spaces equipped with cooling systems. Innovative methods conceived to guarantee high hygiene standards, even re-using processed manure by biogas plants (compost barn method, leading also to a lower use of medicines). Adoption of abundant and easily accessible feeders and drinking troughs, with the removal of harmful structures to the comfort of the animals. Well-being animals produce more and, above all, with less costs.

Working with vets in order to prevent diseases

Preventing and treating diseases is a requirement for animal welfare and one of the fundamental principles of animals rights defence. Breeder and veterinarian collaboration is essential to adopt good health practices, preventive vaccination plans and preventive hygiene practices; identify risk factors; analyse health performances data; recognise diseases early and limit the use of drugs to ill animals only. This positive synergy, not only increases animal welfare conditions, but also it is a prerequisite for drugs use reduction, in particular antibiotics, with a positive implications to farm profitability.

Choosing to respect animal’s ethology

The breeder can adopt good breeding practices that allow animals to be free of fear and able to express their natural social behaviour, respecting their aggregative nature and raising them in groups of adequate size, avoiding an excessive number of movement that force them every time to re-establish hierarchies. Without falling into the misunderstanding of an overlap between human behaviour and animal behaviour, while waiting for scientific research to complete its studies on farmed animals ethology, no doubt that management can be improved in some crucial phases such as birth and removal of calves.

Choosing the best feed ration together with the nutritionist

Carefully study the needs of the animals in order to create adequate rations for the maintenance, growth, reproduction and production of milk by adopting methods as close as possible to the “precision feeding”, ie eliminating the excess of nutrients that, in addition to being cause of fattening and therefore of increased risk of metabolic diseases, leads to an increase in the content of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in manure. In addition, by adopting clinical nutrition criteria, the veterinarian and the nutritionist can modulate each input to improve health and fertility with nutrition. In this case too, acting on nutrition not only brings benefits to animal health, the reduction of use of drugs and of burden of nitrogen phosphorus and potassium on the ground and in the water, but also allows better profits for the farmer.

Choosing techniques to reduce environmental impact with animal husbandry technician

Water reuse technologies, photovoltaic or solar-thermal systems on buildings surfaces, biogas plants for the treatment of manure are all considerable utilities for farm burden on environment reduction. The biogas plant reduces the farm environmental impact: less GHG (greenhouse gases) from manure management, increase of renewable energy production, farm production waste reuse (manure and organic waste) and biogas plant production waste reuse (bio-slurry reused as compost both for bio-fertilizer and for bedding), taking care of not excessively growing crops to feed biogas plants.

Most important in terms of GHG agriculture emission are agricultural processing, in fact more than 50% of this kind of emission is due to cultivation of land (tillage, plowing, sowing, etc.). Another way of reducing the farm impact on feed consumption is to increase food industry waste usage of by-products as they are a valuable resource for feeding livestock. By-products can be from seed pressing (soy, sunflower, corn, etc.), beetroot processing, tomato pomace (tomato peels, seeds and small amounts of pulp), or any other.

What we would like you to do

Do you believe that both sustainability and ethical production is possible whilst striving to feed a growing population?

Please share your thoughts in the discussion area below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Farm to Fork: Sustainable Food Production in a Changing Environment

EIT Food