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Swine survey? USDA says it's not hogwash

It's a dog's life for a lot of pigs down on the farm these days.

It seems the hustle and bustle of modern existence affects more than just humans. What with pens hardly bigger than the animals themselves, and noisy farm machinery that does everything from milk the cows to shear the sheep, it's enough to disturb even the most domesticated herd of swine.

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But the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is coming to the rescue. A team of scientists from the department's Agricultural Research Service is taking a ''poll'' of sorts, asking the pigs to catalog their concerns.

The ''pollsters'' are asking questions like: Are the pigs too cramped in their quarters? What can be done to make the pigs relax and grow faster and quicker?

The scientists hope to get some answers from videotapes of the pigs under cramped conditions and from monitoring the animals' growth and breeding habits.

''A true animal husbandryman can walk through his pens and tell right away which animals are looking good and which aren't. We're simply employing scientific methods to do the same thing and hopefully come up with the reasons why,'' says Robert Oltjen, director of the USDA's Roman L. Hruska US Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, Neb., where one of the projects is centered.

''Through the measurements (taken from the videotapes and tests) we want the animal to tell us whether it's happy or not - whether it's comfortable or not. Not what you think or I think is best,'' says environmental physiologist B. Ann Becker, research team member.

The purpose of the project is twofold: to find ways of providing a more humane living environment for livestock and poultry, and to discover ways of increasing meat production.

The project is an outgrowth of the scientists' dismay over a lack of scientific information about animal welfare and a concern among animal welfare groups that such things as cage layers (rows of stacked cages) and farrowing crates (narrow stalls that restrict a sow's movement), are being used more often.

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In July 1981 Secretary of Agriculture John Block, addressing concerns of both groups, authorized $380,000 for research. Scientists chose to study pigs and poultry because these animals are ''intensively raised'' for meat.

While the project was initiated partly in response to the outcry from animal welfare groups, USDA scientists know that, before they can hope for improvement, farmers must have some economic incentive to change current practices.

That's why the scientists are studying such things as ''behavioral anestrus, '' which is said to cause breeding failure. If they can solve these problems and increase meat production by improving the animals' living conditions, they are confident they can win the farmers' support.

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