Background: To date, there have been a limited number of studies on the impact of government-incentivised farm animal welfare programmes or 'schemes', and on farmers' attitudes regarding such schemes. In this study, focus groups were used to gain insight into Irish farmers' perceptions of such a scheme for suckler cattle and its behavioural impacts on farmers.
Results: The findings were categorised into 46 codes and ultimately yielded two Global themes: 1) Beliefs and Evidence and 2) Logic and Logistics. The former theme covered farmers' attitudes and observations regarding the Scheme. The latter dealt with factors such as workload and costs. The Global themes allowed for comprehensive reporting of the strongest messages from focus groups. There was consensus that Scheme measures for the minimum calving age and for weaning had a positive impact on welfare. Two aspects criticized by participants were firstly disbudding, due to the logistics for anaesthetic application, and secondly the administrative workload associated with data capture and utilisation. The majority anticipated that data being collected via the Scheme would help to inform farm management decisions in future.
Conclusions: Farm animal welfare schemes, which incentivise participants to implement certain practices, aspire to long-term behavioural change after scheme conclusion. Our research showed that this Scheme increased farmer awareness of the benefits of certain practices. It also demonstrated the importance of stakeholder participation in the design stages of welfare initiatives to ensure scheme measures are practical and relevant, to address any perceived controversial measures, and to plan for training and adding value to schemes.