Meet our researchers - Emma Baxter

Description

Dr Baxter is an Associate Professor/Reader at SRUC in Edinburgh, specialising in animal behaviour and welfare, with over 20 years of research experience particularly related to integrated pig science. Her main interests include neonatal survival, developing alternative farrowing and lactation systems, implementing uptake of high welfare systems and practices, and mitigating the health and welfare impacts of selection for production traits.

Q: Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Emma Baxter and I’m a Reader in Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at SRUC in Scotland. I started out in science as a Zoology graduate, before completing the MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Edinburgh. My PhD research investigated the behavioural and physiological indicators of piglet survival and whether survival could be improved using genetic selection strategies in alternative systems to the farrowing crate (a close confinement system for expectant sows). This continues to be an area of interest and much of my work since then involves trying to solve the welfare dilemma of the farrowing crate – that is how can we protect piglets and give the sow greater freedom of movement to perform species-specific behaviours? The AWF grant contributes to this body of research.

Q: What are you currently working on and what does it involve?

My research involves all sorts of areas with different livestock species, including cows, sheep and goats, but mainly pigs. I’ve worked with them for over 20 years on projects covering challenges throughout their life cycle from optimising piglet survival in high welfare farrowing systems to investigating alternatives to CO2 stunning at slaughterhouses.

I have a long list of current research that includes: developing livestock housing systems that optimise animal welfare; implementing uptake of high welfare systems and practices; mitigating the health and welfare impacts of selection for production traits such as hyper-prolificacy; using technology to allow early detection of animal health and welfare problems; optimising performance of high welfare systems using genetic selection strategies and; understanding the short- and long-term health and welfare benefits of positive early-life experiences, as well as understanding negative affective states in sows (e.g. hunger and exhaustion) and their impact on mother and offspring (pre- and post-natal).

As an animal welfare scientist my work encompasses many different disciplines including ethology, veterinary sciences, neurobiology, social science and, more recently, machine vision and deep learning. I get to work with many experts in these fields and apply these different disciplines to solving animal welfare issues.

As well as research, I also spend time teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students and do a lot of outreach, including developing websites and microlearning applications to disseminate research (e.g. www.freefarrowing.orgwww.positiveanimalwelfare.net). Engagement with key stakeholders in industry in order to translate science into practice and support welfare changes at the farm level is an important aspect of my job.

Q: What made you apply for an AWF grant?

I applied for an AWF grant because of their principles in valuing the impact animal welfare science has in providing a sound evidence-based for tackling many animal welfare issues. Their research theme of ‘breeding for better welfare’ was particularly fitting for my research project that considers how we might understand why some sows appear to function better than others in free farrowing systems and whether there are particular traits of good free farrowing mothers. The AWF grant has allowed greater exploration of a rich dataset of behavioural and performance data of sows on free farrowing farms that will help answer the question ‘What makes a good free farrowing mother?’.

Q: What fueled your passion to study the topic?

I’m passionate about this project because we need to find solutions to outdated housing systems that are highly restrictive and cause significant welfare issues for expectant mothers. Farrowing crates have been around since the 1960s, they were designed to reduce piglet mortality but there is overwhelming scientific evidence about the negative consequences for sow welfare and a growing evidence-base about negative impacts for piglets as well as the positive impacts of raising pigs under more dynamic and enriched environments.

A major issue with restrictive systems is that they no longer fit the modern hyperprolific sow and her large litter. Alternatives exist that provide more positive welfare outcomes including delivering good performance which is obviously positive for the farmer. To further improve these systems and encourage farmers to adopt them we need consistent performance which means achieving good piglet survival, growth and development. That consistency, in part, comes from optimising the three Ps – Pens, People and Pigs – in other words augmenting the environment, the management and the animals that interact with both. The AWF grant is helping to look at how we might optimise the Pigs by investigating what traits make a good free farrowing mother.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job as a researcher?

I like the collegiate nature of science, particularly animal welfare science. It involves a rich tapestry of disciplines and that encourages working together towards a common goal of improving the lives of animals. This is why I pursued this career - I want to work with animals and improve their lives by providing the evidence-base to underpin changes to farming practices, recommendations and/or regulations.

Q: What would you like to achieve with your research project?

Ultimately, I’d like the research to help lead to more sustainable farming practices that considers the welfare of all actors in the food supply chain.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking for a similar career?

Being a research scientist can be incredibly rewarding and challenging in equal measure, particularly when working in animal welfare. Progress can seem frustratingly slow, almost glacial sometimes but it is still progress. Projects that support incremental improvements may not be headline news but they are incredibly important particularly in the day-to-day lives of animals under our care.

Animal welfare is a relatively young scientific discipline and that brings advantages – it’s a small world of generally like-minded individuals who are supportive and encouraging. There are opportunities for those wanting to pursue a similar career and I would recommend reaching out to societies like ISAE and foundations like AWF as well as the Animal Welfare Research Network to find out more.