Better livestock breeding gives a more radiant animal life. With that goal in mind, according to Johan van Arendonk of Hendrix Genetics, it is necessary to nurture the diversity of solution directions. « But leave room for the use of innovative technologies. »
For Johan van Arendonk, head of innovation and technology at Hendrix Genetics, it is clear what breeding organizations are all about: sustainably feeding the world’s population. With the breeding of cattle, the ecological footprint of dairy and meat has been further reduced.
‘For pigs and poultry, that footprint has been halved in 40 years. The modern pig and the modern chicken need half the protein raw materials compared to their counterparts in 1980, « says Van Arendonk. He was one of the speakers during the Vaarkample lecture on 30 January in Utrecht.
Right direction of development
The innovation manager labels this direction of development towards a smaller footprint as the right one. ‘So we stick to what we already do and try to improve other characteristics. But I do not deny that things have gone wrong in the past when breeding animals, « he says.
Gene technology can offer welfare-friendly solutions
‘Nevertheless, there must always be room for changes in breeding. Pushing boundaries is and will always be necessary to make food production even more sustainable with breeding, « says Van Arendonk.
Life-size difference in livestock and companion animals
Breeding animals whether it concerns farm animals or companion animals, it is always in the interest of humans. The importance of animal welfare in those two animal sectors is very different. In cattle breeding, the goal is to get more productive and efficient animals that are healthy and perform in certain farming systems. Animals that are intended to feed humans and with which the farmer earns his income. Professional organizations are responsible for breeding. When breeding pet animals, it is often about individual interests. For example, people are charmed by extreme features such as short snouts, bald or miniature animals. Bread breeders fulfill those market wishes, but the welfare and health of those animals does not always benefit. The popularity of pure-bred animals can have inbreeding as a result of which genetic defects are passed on. The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University has developed Fit2Breed to steer the breeding of healthy companion animals in the right direction. Diseases of breeding animals are recorded centrally and mating advice is given based on DNA testing and genotyping.
No limit on numbers
‘Suppose a limit is drawn for the maximum number of piglets born per litter. That number would be different 30 years ago than it is today. Sows today are more self-reliant, the nutrition has improved and the stables are more comfortable, « emphasizes Van Arendonk. ‘That’s why I never think in terms of limits purely on numbers. It’s about finding the balance and continuing to develop. «
Van Arendonk sees new technologies playing a prominent role in breeding. Among other things, the use of techniques to make desired changes to genetic material.
‘Gene editing is a fantastic development for science. In this way, researchers can advance in understanding the functions of DNA, « argues the innovation manager.
‘But space must be provided to understand animal genes and to experiment with them responsibly. Europe must embrace gene technology. It takes at least five years before gene editing is ready for practical application. In the meantime, a dialogue can take place about what can and cannot be done. «
According to Van Arendonk, sustainability has many dimensions and is challenging for breeding organizations. « There is never a single solution for responsibly responding to the demand for animal products in different parts of the world. Diversity is needed to match local conditions. «
An example are slow-growing broilers with more living space per animal for the Northwestern European consumer. These animals score a plus on animal welfare, but it costs extra feed per kilo of meat. With chickens in Kipster and Rondeel we can learn from how that animal thrives in that way of keeping and then can take another step in breeding.
‘Breeding organizations are constantly responding to the sustainable feeding of the world with a wide range of solutions. Suppose the demand for animal products decreases, then the task remains how you want to do it responsibly, « says the innovation manager.
‘For example, breeding no longer has to do anything like interventions such as beak treatments or castration. Gene technology may offer a welfare-friendly solution to the social problem of killing day-olds. «
Sensors and the collection of individual animal data play an increasingly important role in animal husbandry. Sensors make it easier for farmers to better manage large groups of animals. In this way they are able to detect sick animals earlier. That serves animal welfare and they need to use fewer antibiotics.
Van Arendonk welcomes innovations such as the Family Pig. « That farming system will never be the solution for a sustainable food supply, but monitoring self-reliant sows and their piglets via sensors in that system provides a lot of information, » he says.
« We can learn a lot about the behavior of individual animals in a family group and we can use that data stream to breed healthy social pigs. »
Enter into dialogue and become the world animal welfare champion
The Vaarkamplezing was held for the fourth time in Utrecht on 30 January and was all about breeding. The first edition took place in 2014. The lecture was created as a tribute and memory of Henk Vaarkamp, who died suddenly in 2011. He was, among other things, chairman of the Council for Animal Affairs and professor at the faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. In the eyes of the scientist, the Netherlands should become world animal welfare champion. He pursued more ambitions: positioning the Netherlands as an international leader and innovator in production-oriented animal husbandry. But a better animal welfare is not at the expense of productivity, sustainability and performance, Vaarkamp wondered. And what is everyone’s responsibility in the search for sustainable animal husbandry? From now on, entering into a dialogue without taboos and entering difficult areas was called a Henk-Vaarkamp dialogue. Social acceptance of animal husbandry is central to the lectures. The aim is to connect the animal keeper and veterinarian, science and practice and politics.