Animal husbandry is the science of looking after and breeding animals — specifically those that are used in agriculture, to provide products, for research purposes or as domestic pets. The subject covers a wide range of activities, including care and grooming, livestock farming, accommodation and hygiene. The study also overlaps with many other disciplines, such as agriculture, veterinary science and genetics. Not all people involved in husbandry will necessarily take part in all these activities or require knowledge of other disciplines. In many parts of the world, people are essentially practicing animal husbandry through being farmers, ranchers, sheepherders, or simply taking care of large groups of livestock.
Agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years, and involved, at an early stage, the keeping of animals for meat, milk, and clothing. This required humans to gain knowledge of animal species that could be domesticated in order to ensure maximum productivity. Humans became familiar with their habits, protected them from predators, assisted with births and learned how to treat or prevent many ailments.
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Today, many of the practices involved in animal husbandry come naturally from being brought up on farms where large numbers of livestock are raised. This is particularly true in primarily rural areas and in less developed countries. Children are taught early how to take care of the same types of animals their parents raise so that they can take over farms and ranches as adults. In more developed countries there are programs that help young children learn how to raise and look after animals. With most people no longer raising their own livestock for meat or clothing, these programs give children the opportunity to learn some of the required skills.
As farm animals became domesticated, and as humans began to keep certain species as pets, breeding techniques developed that allowed the creation and maintenance, over many generations, of desirable characteristics. These might include a docile temperament, high milk yield in cattle, or hunting and tracking skills in dogs. The idea was to identify useful traits and breed suitable animals with one another. Offspring with the correct characteristics would then be selected for further breeding. Today, these techniques have been improved by knowledge of genetics, and augmented by new methods, such as artificial insemination and the transfer of embryos to surrogate mothers.
As of 2013, one of the biggest growth areas may be the genetic engineering of livestock. This allows the creation of animals with improved characteristics through the transfer of genetic material. It can achieve the desired results much more quickly than selective breeding, and opens up many new possibilities. It may be possible to not only improve meat and milk yields, but to provide healthier and more nutritious food, and even to farm animals that produce useful drugs.
Careers in Animal Husbandry
Pursuing a career in this area can mean anything from continuing the family farming business to obtaining academic qualifications in specialist topics. Many universities and colleges offer degree courses in animal husbandry, in particular aspects of the subject, and in related subjects. People who take undergraduate degrees in this subject may be less interested in caring for livestock, and more likely to specialize with graduate degrees in veterinary medicine, pharmacy specializing in animals, or in managing large companies that manufacture products for livestock, such as feed.
Specialists in animal husbandry may try to address particular problems, for example methods for preventing mastitis in cows, or the specific requirements of shelters for pigs. As many farms have become more industrialized, calculating optimum accommodation space may be a focus. Some people who raise livestock may also take classes in animal husbandry to learn how to do certain things, such as how to dock tails, make use of the newest technology to milk cattle, or breed them using artificial insemination techniques.
Aside from agriculture, one of the largest areas in which husbandry is employed is in the raising of animals for scientific and medical research. Trials of new drugs and testing of chemicals for safety often require that large numbers are raised and kept in identical conditions, so that valid comparisons can be made between different groups. It is also essential that animals used for testing are healthy. This involves carefully regulating a number of different factors, such as temperature, ventilation, lighting and sanitation, as well as food and water. A detailed knowledge of the needs of specific species is required.
The emphasis on greater productivity and reduced costs in agriculture has led to controversy over some farming methods. Some specialists in animal husbandry have looked into ways of reducing the space requirements for accommodation, modifications to produce more docile animals, and genetic alterations or drug injections to increase yield. The introduction of bovine stimulating hormone (BSH) to increase milk production in cows is one example. Other experts believe feel that goals in raising stock should always be focused on humane caring for livestock. Many have argued for a “free-range” approach and for organic farming methods that do not involve the use of drugs or hormone injections.
In the quest to produce animals that are ideally suited to their purpose, a number of controversial practices have arisen. These include the de-horning of cattle; the tail docking, ear cropping and debarking of dogs; and the declawing of domestic cats. Those in favor of these techniques put forward a number of arguments. For example, dehorning of cattle may be performed to prevent injury to people working with them, and for the animals’ own safety. Opponents, however, argue that many of these methods are cruel, that they deprive creatures of their natural defenses or means of communication, and that they are unnecessary as they are often done for purely aesthetic reasons.