UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
Kurt Vogel, far right, talks with students in the Animal Welfare Lab at UW-River Falls.
May 16, 2022 -- The Animal Welfare Lab at University of Wisconsin-River Falls has garnered a $210,000 two-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to continue the research started by two recent graduates.
Karly Anderson and Elizabeth Ries, recent UWRF graduates, started researching the thickness and brain features of pig’s heads to determine the best locations to place captive bolts for euthanasia in 2019.
The funding will be used to conduct similar research using cadaver heads from pigs and cattle and allow current students to engage in undergraduate research. The new USDA funding will help expand the original line of research, which sprouted from curiosity and initial support from the National Pork Board.
“The research we conduct in the Animal Welfare Lab is designed to avoid causing discomfort to animals however we can,” said Kurt Vogel, associate professor of farm animal welfare and head of the Animal Welfare Lab. “It’s not just more humane for the animals, it’s also better for the people who conduct and later use the research from a mental health perspective. The way we treat the animals that benefit us affects how we see ourselves and treat each other.”
The Animal Welfare Lab was established at UWRF in 2012 and is a hub for undergraduate research, teaching demonstrations, and animal welfare judging and assessment. The lab was established with a grant from Oscar Mayer, part of the Kraft Heinz Company.
The grant was from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It is part of the NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Welfare and Well-Being of Agricultural Animals program. The program supports objective evaluations of current animal agricultural production practices and the development of new or enhanced management approaches that aim at safeguarding animal welfare while sustaining or improving production efficiency.
Preparing the next generation
The lab’s mission is to prepare the next generation of animal caretakers and welfare scientists to care for animal resources in ethical and sustainable ways and to conduct applied animal welfare and behavior research that can be readily translated to field use.
“One of our goals is to conduct research that is suitable for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals and to get students’ names on those publications,” Vogel said. “That helps UWRF students as they apply to graduate or veterinary schools. In the Animal Welfare Lab, we try to see ourselves as a pre-graduate program. Students get some of the opportunities and experiences they would get from a master’s degree program at a larger research university. This eases the transition to the next step in their education and allows them to hit the ground running.”
Anderson, who earned her degree in animal science, is a graduate research assistant and Ph.D. student in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and an affiliate of the Animal Welfare Lab at UWRF. Anderson conducted her master’s degree program in a cooperative between the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine and UWRF. Her dissertation research is a continuation of her undergraduate and master’s degree research. Anderson is pleased the research can continue in the Animal Welfare Lab. The use of cadaver heads from animals slaughtered for food in this research allows for gathering information without inflicting pain or suffering to live animals.
“So far, we have found that the frontal placement has the least risk for failed euthanasia attempts for market hogs when compared to behind ear placement for market hogs and when compared to the temporal and behind ear placements for mature breeding swine,” Anderson said, who was the UWRF Animal Welfare Lab coordinator from September 2019 to December 2021. “Ultimately, this work will help to positively influence the animal agriculture industry by applying science to guide management decisions and practices.”
Undergraduate research experience
“The experiences provided at the UWRF Animal Welfare Lab are truly invaluable and I am very grateful for them,” Anderson said. “I enjoyed everything about my undergraduate research experience at UWRF. Simply put, I would not be where I am today without the opportunity to learn about the research process and my involvement in the captive bolt euthanasia research as an undergraduate student at UWRF. What started as a simple undergraduate research project grew into a larger project which was funded by the National Pork Board and comprised my master’s work and has grown even further to the work that we’ll be starting this spring funded by the USDA that will be the focus of my Ph.D. research. It has been a very enjoyable process for me to be involved in every stage of planning, grant writing, and project execution with this line of research over the last three years.”
Anderson added that UWRF has a special atmosphere to support the growth and development of students with interests in farm animal welfare. That environment comes from the faculty.
“Dr. Vogel is a wonderful leader, with the unique ability to share his passion for animal welfare science with others,” Anderson said. “Drs. Brian Greco, Kate Creutzinger, and Arquimides Reyes are all also wonderful collaborators at UWRF that I am grateful to have the continued opportunity to work with and learn from.”
Ries earned her animal science degree in spring 2020 and is a third-year veterinary student at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. She had never done a research project and found it fun and interesting.
“I grew up on a pig farm and had a lot of experience with pigs and the swine industry, so being able to conduct a research project that would benefit the future industry was a really great opportunity,” Ries said. “I am interested in becoming a large animal veterinarian with an interest in swine, so the research project was definitely a great topic for me and my future career. It has been beneficial for certain topics that we have talked about in vet school, and I appreciate the knowledge that I gained and how it has helped my education so far.”
Each year about 15 UWRF students are involved in applied welfare or behavior research projects at the lab and paid for their time, Vogel said. This provides students with income. That financial support comes from a combination of external grant funding and the UWRF Undergraduate Research, Scholarly, and Creative Activity (URSCA) program.
“If we don’t find ways to pay students for their time, we are exploiting their excitement,” Vogel said. “When you pay them, they take the work more seriously. It creates the right kind of atmosphere where they know they are valued contributors to the work.”
Breanna Weiler, a senior animal science major from Junction City, has participated in research in the Animal Welfare Lab focused on brain damage from captive bolt applications.
“The research is what helps me gain more knowledge and understand what we can do in animal welfare,” she said, noting the experience also will help her get accepted into veterinary school. “I have always been interested in making things better.”
For more information on the Animal Welfare Lab, email Vogel at email@example.com.