Sensors and software extend beyond the farmer’s ears and eyes to track the animals’ well-being. Photo: Jeroen Bouman / WLR
In the future, sensors will act as extra antennae for pig farmers. Collecting more data on individual animals can give a farmer running a big farm a better idea of which pigs need more attention. Researchers Bennie van der Fels and Rudi de Mol are testing the new possibilities offered by smart farming.
“Farmers keep a close watch on the welfare and health of their livestock. That’s their job. Doing that for 200 sows is one thing, but it’s quite another for 1000 sows. Farms are getting bigger and bigger, and there comes a point when your own senses are not enough,” explains Bennie van der Fels, who works at Wageningen Livestock Research. One solution is to use sensors and software as the farmer’s eyes and ears.
Smart farming is not a new concept in livestock farming. Most pig farmers have sensors installed in their barns that collect climate data. In the past, the farmers could view data about the temperature, relative humidity and ventilation speed on a screen in the barn itself, but these days the systems are connected to the internet. That means that in addition to the farmer, the supplier can see the information and check how the system is functioning. Van der Fels: “These systems increasingly measure ammonia and CO₂ as well, but that is still not done everywhere. Yet too much ammonia is not nice for the pigs and can also be bad for the health of the farmer and farm workers.”
The individual animal
The extra sensors focus on the individual animal. At present, that is mainly done with cows. Farmers with dairy cows, for instance, keep electronic watch of whether each individual cow has come up to the milking machine and has been fully milked. “If not, the farmer gets a message on their computer or smartphone and they can go and check what is up with the cow,” explains Van der Fels.
Tracking the pigs electronically lets you compare their health and performance
Vets say the recording and analysis of cough sounds helps to respond quickly to respiratory tract infections. The researchers want to extend the use of sound recordings and link the information to the other data. Photo: Jeroen Bouman / WLR
Individual monitoring of health and behaviour has not progressed that far for porkers. “Cows can wear sensors on a collar,” he says, “but that doesn’t work with pigs. Pigs are far too curious and they destroy the sensors.” Partly because of this, the options for monitoring individual pigs are limited at present.
So Van der Fels and De Mol came up with a clever solution for improving the monitoring of individual pigs. “Pigs in the Sustainable Pork Supply Chain (Keten Duurzaam Varkensvlees, KDV) already wear an electronic ear tag that documents various data in a kind of passport. It contains data on where and when the pig was born and who the parents were. We want to make better use of that electronic ear tag,” says Van der Fels. The ear tags are currently intended as part of the effort to achieve production without antibiotics and are used for identifying animals if they need to be treated for health reasons and when they are slaughtered. However, the researchers believe the use of antibiotics could be reduced further still. That is possible if farmers get an early alert that certain animals need extra attention. So the ear tag serves as a virtual ‘bell’ that the pig wears throughout its life.
Pigs are creatures of habit. If the system sees a change, the farmer gets a message
De Mol and Van der Fels are working with the Sustainable Pork Supply Chain to test whether the electronic ear tag can be used to collect and combine a much wider range of data than what is currently included in the digital passport. Sensors in the barn record whenever a pig passes a gate. When a piglet is transferred from the farrowing pen to another section or another farm, this too can be recorded. Van der Fels: “A litter of siblings is kept together if at all possible. Too many changes cause unrest in the group and farmers try to avoid that if they can. By identifying the pigs electronically and tracking them, you will be able to compare the health and performance of different litters.
Knowing exactly how your livestock is doing is essential for any farmer, yet keeping an eye on hundreds of pigs is a monumental task. Bennie van der Fels, project manager at Wageningen University & Research, explains how smart farming can help farmers to create the ideal living environment for their animals. (UK subtitles available in video)
A comparison between groups of pigs can already turn up interesting differences. Perhaps one particular group was in a spot that was that little bit colder or perhaps the pigs were in a draught. The differences can be quite subtle, but they can still affect the animals’ welfare and health, showing up as poorer quality meat when they are slaughtered. “There is still a lot of room for improvement in the barn climate,” says Van der Fels. “I’m thinking for example of further reductions in the ammonia and CO2 in the barn. And that will cut emissions from the barn too.”
Eating and drinking
Pigs from the same litter can also demonstrate differences in behaviour. That is why the researchers have placed sensors on the feed trough and drinking trough. Each time a pig eats or drinks something, the system records this in the chip in its ear. “That lets us know when and how often a pig eats and drinks. Like humans, pigs are creatures of habit. If the system sees a change in the usual pattern, the farmer gets a message,” says Van der Fels.
The pig's ear tag is a digital passport which is used to collect and combine a wide range of data on behaviour and health. Photo: Jeroen Bouman / WLR
These days, many farmers have so many pigs that they can no longer keep a close watch on each individual animal. Smart farming complements their professional skills. Photo: Jeroen Bouman / WLR
A deviation from eating and drinking habits is often a sign that something is up. “If a pig does not visit the feed trough so often, that could indicate lameness. If it drinks more than usual, that could point to a fever,” explains Van der Fels. A timely warning for the farmer could help avoid more pain or sickness for the pig, as farmers then know which animals they need to keep a particularly close watch on.
For livestock farmers, it is important that the system produces reliable messages. That can be achieved by combining data on the environment and behaviour. Van der Fels: “Our view is that the greater the number of data sources you use, the more reliable your alert. Farmers don’t want to miss any cases, but they also don’t want unnecessary messages.” That is why he is collaborating with De Mol and other colleagues to extend the system by adding video images and sound recordings. “We want to get an even better understanding of what happens to a pig and what happens in the group.”
Sound recordings are already used in the cough monitor. Vets say the recording and analysis of cough sounds helps to respond quickly to respiratory tract infections. That also reduces the likelihood that the pigs will require antibiotics. The researchers want to extend the use of sound recordings and link the information to the other data.
Larger family companies
In the end, Van der Fels and De Mol hope that more and more pig farmers will start using the smart farming approach to monitor the pigs’ health and behaviour. “Our tools are designed for medium-sized and large family farms,” says Van der Fels. “These days, they have so many pigs that they can no longer keep a close watch on each individual animal. Smart farming complements their professional skills. But of course it needs to be affordable. It will be easier for larger farms to make the necessary investments. That is why we expect this group in particular to adopt sensor technology for individual animal management in the short term. They have the greatest need for it and can benefit most.”
WHO Bennie van der Fels, senior project manager smart farming
RESEARCH PROJECT Smart Tools voor Vitale Varkens
TEAM Wageningen Livestock Research
Photo: Jeroen Bouman
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