With a new professorship, Aarhus University prioritises research in livestock welfare and behavioural needs
As of 1 March 2021, Margit Bak Jensen has been appointed professor in behavioural needs and stress biology at Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University. The department is already acknowledged internationally for its research in animal welfare, and with this professorship the department strengthens its position even further in this field of research.
Animal welfare is a field of research which receives much attention from consumers and society, and the focus on animals not only having an “acceptable” life but also a “good life” is increasing. At the same time, the demands for production efficiency and considerations for the climate continue to increase. It may seem as an dilemma; however, more knowledge about and research in the animals’ behavioural needs, positive animal welfare and adaptation through behaviour will help ensuring that productivity, health and consideration for animal welfare can all come together.
“Research in animal welfare is one of our core research areas at Department of Animal Science with the purpose of developing production systems for livestock production, which is sustainable and at the same time take animal welfare into account. With the increasing pressure on animal production, as regards considerations for the climate and production efficiency, it has become more important than ever to conduct animal welfare research, to ensure that the development does not affect the animals adversely. Our department is already acknowledged internationally for our research within this field, and with Margit Bak Jensen’s professorship we can keep the lead within the field and strengthen our position even further – nationally and internationally”, says Head of Department Klaus Lønne Ingvartsen.
Margit Bak Jensen has been employed as senior scientist since 1998 and has led a number of research projects – both with national and international collaborators. In cooperation with research colleagues at Department of Animal Science and abroad, Margit focuses on developing well-functioning housing, management and feeding methods which meet the animals’ behavioural needs and are based on knowledge of the animals’ natural behaviour and adaptability.
“I am interested in finding out what is important to animals because that is the key to both good animal welfare and well-functioning production systems. We need to know what it takes for production systems to meet the animals’ behavioural needs thus ensuring good animal welfare. We also need to know what it takes to ensure a good interaction between the animal and the system; that is housing, management and feeding methods based on a fundamental knowledge of the animals’ natural behaviour, their motivation and adaptability”, says Margit Bak Jensen.
Good animal welfare is not only about lack of negative experiences but also about positive experiences
The professorship focuses on the animals’ behavioural needs. Behavioural needs are, according to Margit Bak Jensen, natural behaviour, that the animals are highly motivated to perform and for which thwarting of the behaviour results in frustration or abnormal behaviour. Therefore, meeting the behavioural needs is a prerequisite to prevent negative experiences. However, behaviour can also be associated with positive experiences and thus contribute to a good animal life. “So far, little emphasis has been on the positive side of animal welfare, but this is one of the subjects that I will focus on in my future research. When we ask the question: ‘What is a good life for a production animal?’, we must include both positive and negative experiences”, says Margit Bak Jensen.
A theoretical model, which Margit works with, assesses animal welfare as the balance of positive and negative experiences over time. “It takes positive experiences for an animal to feel good, but we cannot avoid that animals also have negative experiences, which is why we have to consider the balance between the two”, she explains.
The “self-guided animal”
Knowledge about animals’ ability to adapt and thrive through their behaviour has a great potential to improve both functionality and animal welfare. The professorship will help strengthen the international position of the department regarding behavioural needs, positive welfare and self-guided animals.
“Studying animal welfare is fascinating. Animals obtain their goals and avoid threats through their behaviour. Often, the animal knows best what it needs, hence the idea of making the animals ‘self-guided’ in the production systems. This may be done by designing the housing so that animals with special needs are able to access special resources at certain times, for example when they are about to give birth. To be able to obtain goals through functional behaviour is probably rewarding – also for animals. The self-guided animal may be happier, wiser and more robust”, says Margit Bak Jensen.
Research in animal welfare in a climate agenda
Today, climate is an important agenda, putting livestock production under pressure. Increasing efficiency of livestock production can make it more climate friendly, but increased efficiency must not be at the expense of animal welfare. Research in animal behaviour can help ensuring this. In cases where increased animal welfare comes with an economic cost, it is, according to Margit Bak Jensen, important that these costs are reflected in quantifiable improvements of animal welfare for which consumers are ready to pay more.
“The prerequisite for the development of socially sustainable production systems is to know what constitutes behavioural needs. But this alone is not enough. We also need to find out what gives the animals positive experiences and what gives them the opportunity to function well and develop skills in order for them to thrive through their behaviour. It is my ambition that the research should support the development of valid and feasible methods to quantify central aspects of animal welfare such as behavioural needs and positive affective states. It is also my ambition to investigate the significance of achieving goals through functional behaviour, information seeking and learning. The potential is that production systems, based on the animals’ natural behaviour and abilities, can obtain both good welfare and high productivity”, concludes Margit Bak Jensen.
About Professor Margit Bak Jensen
Born on 4 December 1962, grew up on a dairy farm near Sæby in northern Jutland.
Cand. Agro. in 1990, Copenhagen University.
M.Sc. in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare in 1991, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
PhD degree in Ethology in 1996, Copenhagen University. Subject ‘Social and play behaviour in dairy calves’.
Employed as Scientist from 1996 to 1998 at Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Health and Welfare.
Employed as Senior scientist since 1998 at the same place.
Since 2007: Senior scientist at Aarhus University, Department of Animal Science.
Appointed professor at Aarhus University as of 1 March 2021.
Lives in Randers, is married and has grown-up children.