Nearly 70 percent of rural Nebraskans define animal welfare in terms similar to those promoted by advocacy groups, but most don't think increased regulation of the state's livestock practices is necessary to ensure proper care of animals in the state, according to the latest Nebraska Rural Poll.

The 16th annual University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll, taken last March and April, asked participants a variety of questions about animal welfare issues, at a time when animal-welfare advocates are pushing in many states for increased regulation of how livestock animals are treated.

What animal welfare means

According to the poll, 95 percent of rural Nebraskans agree than animal welfare means providing adequate food, water and shelter to livestock animals. More significantly, though, 69 percent agree it also includes providing adequate exercise, space and social activities for the animals.

That's significant because it largely coincides with the "Five Freedoms" promoted by the Animal Welfare Council in England, says Randy Cantrell, rural sociologist with the Nebraska Rural Initiative. Those freedoms have served as a benchmark for animal-welfare advocates in England and the United States.

"Rural Nebraskans are willing to consider more than just the physical health of livestock as being important to their overall welfare," Cantrell says.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they were familiar with current animal care practices used to raise livestock and poultry, and 40 percent indicated they are currently raising beef cattle or have in the past. Ninety-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed that livestock and poultry production are important to Nebraska's economy.

The poll also found that 84 percent of rural Nebraskans believe livestock farmers and their veterinarians know how best to care for their animals, and 74 percent believe animal welfare is better protected on family farms than on large corporate farms.

"There's a notion that corporate farms don't have the same attachment to individual animals that family farms do," Cantrell notes.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents agreed that increased regulation of Nebraska's livestock practices would raise the cost of production and, ultimately, food.

The poll asked two related questions about rural Nebraskans' opinions on the adequacy of current regulations or the need for more regulations on livestock practices. Averaging the results, nearly one  in five respondents said more regulations were needed, while slightly more than two in five said current regulations were adequate. There was also a large group of respondents – almost two of every five – that were uncertain or had no opinion about whether more regulations are needed.

That large bloc of undecideds is central to any attempts to legislate animal welfare regulations, the Rural Poll team members say. "One key will be the effectiveness of the political messages" from advocates of increased regulation and from representatives of the livestock industry, says Brad Lubben, UNL Extension public policy expert.

There are notable demographic differences in how rural Nebraskans perceive animal welfare and its regulation. Those differences are likely to play a role in any campaign over animal welfare regulations, Lubben says.

For example:

– People who own pets – 60 percent of the survey group – were more likely than those without pets – 71 percent to 66 percent – to agree that animal welfare means providing adequate exercise, space and social activities in addition to basic care. They also were less likely – 52 to 61 percent – to agree with the statement that current regulations are adequate.

– Some gender differences also are notable. More women than men – 73 to 64 percent – endorsed the expanded definition of animal welfare. Also, more men than women – 67 to 48 percent – agreed with the statement that current regulations are sufficient. Similarly, more women than men – 36 to 21 percent – agreed with the statement that more regulation of livestock practices is needed.

– Respondents in agricultural occupations were more likely than those in other occupations to agree with the statement that current regulation is adequate. For example, 77 percent of those in ag occupations took that position, while only 44 percent of those in sales or office support jobs did.

– Similarly, 69 percent of respondents in ag occupations disagreed with the statement that more regulation is necessary, while only 20 percent of those in food service or personal care occupations took that position.

– Respondents 65 and older were more likely than those 30 to 39 – 82 and 68 percent, respectively – to agree that animal welfare is better protected on family farms than corporate farms.

"This is setting up to be a really interesting debate," Cantrell predicts.

The Rural Poll is the largest annual poll of rural Nebraskans' perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. This year's response rate was about 39 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percent. Complete results are available online at Nebraska Rural Poll.

The university's Center for Applied Rural Innovation conducts the poll in cooperation with the Nebraska Rural Initiative with funding from UNL Extension and the Agricultural Research Division in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources