Increased culling of neonatal piglets - investigating the impact of super-prolific breeding programmes on human health and associations with animal care


AWF Research Fund



Research Period


Area of study

Breeding for Better Welfare


Investigator(s): Dr Emma Baxter
Project length: 12 months (due to start February 2024)
Neonatal mortality is an unfortunately common aspect of livestock production. ‘Natural’ mortality has increased over several decades, despite scientific advances. This is particularly the case in the pig industry, where, in the UK alone, over 2.4 million piglets die per year.
The lack of improvement in survival is partly due to super-prolific breeding programmes to enhance efficiency by getting more piglets from fewer sows. However, the sow has limited capacity to rear these extra piglets. There are also more lower birth-weight or growth-retarded ‘runt’ piglets with poor survival prospects.
Stockpeople must make decisions about how best to manage them, including premature culling (if there are no fostering opportunities) or an ‘acceptance’ that many will not survive despite interventions. Acceptability of death is a subject of ethical debate and whilst death itself may not be considered a welfare issue, the manner of dying is, particularly when it involves pain and/or suffering. The animal welfare impacts are clear, well-researched and understood, but the impact on the stockperson is lacking. Failure to understand the potential emotional toll on stockpeople is counterproductive to animal welfare as it is well known that the health and welfare of animals are closely linked to the well-being of caregivers.
This research aims to investigate the impact of culling of surplus neonatal piglets on the mental health and wellbeing of stockworkers and how this relates to animal care. Having a greater understanding of the challenges faced by stockworkers will inform veterinary approach, including how to enable human behaviour change to ensure better animal welfare practices.