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Researcher looks for ways to minimize stress for farm animals

Photo of Chris Byrd

Chris Byrd

NDSU researcher Chris Byrd is on a mission to improve the lives of livestock.

“I consider myself to be an animal welfare scientist,” said Byrd, assistant professor of animal sciences, who focuses primarily on swine. “I investigate ways we can optimize the production environment for animals we raise for food. We want the animals to be healthy, make sure they can perform natural behaviors and that they have a positive experience throughout their lifetimes.

Byrd, who joined the NDSU faculty in March 2019, is focusing on stress in his research. “Animals aren’t able to talk to us, so I use their behavior and physiology to draw conclusions about their experience,” he said.

Among other things, he is researching a system of measures to see if blood tests can reveal the amount of stress an animal is experiencing.

He’s also examining the impact of a technique called cross-fostering. Sows often give birth to more piglets than they can nurse. Through cross-fostering, the extra piglets are moved to other litters so they have access to milk.

“Some research shows the piglets we are cross-fostering have a harder time integrating themselves into the non-biological litter, something you’d probably expect,” Byrd said. “The question I’m asking is: Does the stress they experience early in life affect how they handle stress later on?”

Byrd is quick to note that producers put animal welfare as their top priority, and the industry is constantly changing. “We can always do better. Hopefully my research helps producers mitigate some stressors experienced by their animals, so they can ensure the well-being of their animals and continue to make a good living,” Byrd said.

Byrd comes to NDSU with a strong background in research. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Purdue University, where he worked with one of the premier animal behavior groups in the world, headed by Donald Lay, research leader of the USDA-ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit. Byrd earned his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University.

His upcoming work will look at how going up ramps for transport to another farm or processing plant can stress pigs. “Since they are not frequently exposed to ramps during the production phase, ascending a ramp into a trailer can be a very stressful experience,” Byrd said.

In a USDA-funded study, NDSU researchers will explore how the introduction of a small ramp in nursery enclosures for 3- to 8-week old animals can reduce stress later on when they reach market weight of 280-300 pounds.

Byrd will collaborate with NDSU colleagues Sarah Wagner and Jennifer Young to continue their preliminary work in this area. He plans to work with a local commercial facility to see if it is feasible on a larger scale.

“With ramps, there are a lot of implications for animal welfare – it is stressful for animals. Market pigs can slip or fall if they are not used to a ramp,” Byrd said.

New methods and measurements are expected to come from Byrd’s work, meaning improved welfare for livestock and better profit margins for producers.

“I would say we are getting better and better every day in our understanding of how animals are experiencing their world.”

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