High Hopes for Hi-Tech

Where the ‘next big thing’ is always king

By Geoff Geddes

Everywhere you turn, technology has been changing our world for the better: desktop computers, smartphones, beer hats. For the pork sector, staying competitive in pork means keeping up with the latest advances. Apart from being interesting and cool, hi-tech takes the heat off producers in an industry that offers two options: keep up or go under.

“Every industrial revolution over the past several centuries has been fueled by the adoption and scaling of new technologies,” says Dr. Dale Polson, who is based in Iowa and works in Global Integrated Health Management at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health in Ingelheim, Germany.

“If we drill down to animal-based protein production, and further down to the pork sector, the ongoing impact of successive waves of technology adoption on operational efficiency and capacity is unmistakable.”

In many corners of society, advances in technology have been occurring for centuries, but it’s the speed of progress that has continued to evolve.

“With the capabilities of technology today, everything is possible,” says Tom Stein, director of global marketing for Merck Animal Health Ventures. “It used to be that we had all of these ideas, but the building blocks just weren’t there to implement them. Now that they are, it’s more about how we can best use technology to benefit producers.”

Labouring for solutions

As any pork farmer will attest, one of their greatest challenges is labour, and technology is front and centre in addressing the issue.

“Labour has become the biggest constraint for producers, and it’s only going to get worse,” says Stein. “With no long-term solution on the horizon, our best weapon is automation.”

Given the scope of the problem, anything that improves labour efficiency is welcomed on-farm.

“There is a robot power washer that handles about 80 per cent of the cleaning and disinfecting in farrowing rooms,” says Stein. “That saves you one or two full-time people and the hours they represent.”

Much of technology aims to save producers two things that are often in short supply – time and money – while addressing their No. 1 priority: animal welfare.

“Handheld or mobile data collection can include things like the number of treatments given to pigs each day and information on death loss, temperature, humidity and heater run times,” says Stein. “If someone walks through the barn and sees pigs looking chilled, they can enter that information and the producer views it on their smartphone while in the office or on the road. They can then change the ventilation or heater settings as needed.”

Coughing up answers

Keeping pigs healthy is often about timing, a reality reflected in the latest devices. SoundTalks is a recently developed microphone system that hails from Belgium.

Overview of SoundTalks system in barn
    Boehringer-Ingelheim SoundTalks system - Boehringer-Ingelheim photo

SoundTalks hangs throughout the barn, each monitoring device covering roughly a 20-metre diameter zone, and listens for the sound of pigs coughing. It then tracks that information and can identify when and where there has been a change in coughing activity that points to developing respiratory problems, alerting the producer and veterinarian so that earlier action can be taken.

“Studies have shown that the device will identify greater coughing frequency four to five days before a barn worker would notice it,” says Stein.

“Even if you administer the same intervention, our research shows there is a demonstrable economic value in delivering it earlier in the course of a respiratory disease episode,” says Polson. “SoundTalks enables producers to do just that.”

Though mortalities are inevitable, there is also software to help producers minimize losses going forward. In addition to tracking all of your animals’ daily activities on a smartphone, the EveryPig system uses machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence – to assess postmortem images and make a diagnosis.

“Using a large database of diagnostic information, EveryPig can recognize plural pneumonia in a lung image or distended bowel in a shot of a GI tract,” says Stein. “This could produce an onsite answer. Rather than waiting a week for the vet to come out and send samples to a lab, this system could give instantaneous results and limit your losses on-farm.”

As is often the case in the pork business, research plays a large role in maximizing the use and effectiveness of technology.

“We are currently conducting a census of various technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) on pork farms and comparing them in terms of GHG footprint,” says René Roy, vice-chair of Swine Innovation Porc (SIP) and a pork producer in Quebec.

“Given the severe droughts in parts of Canada over the last few years, SIP is also studying technology for optimizing water use to limit the need for transporting water and incurring the costs and inconvenience involved.”

A healthy interest in innovation

In terms of animal welfare, technology is a central focus as researchers expand their approach to animal health.

“Ten years ago, health was mostly about designing new antibiotics or finding novel feed ingredients,” says Roy. “We have evolved from there to a more holistic view as we work to improve air quality in barns or reduce certain gases.”

Research also seeks to safeguard pig health through the use of new material and designs for modern barns that are better able to withstand stressors from the environment.

Of course, if technology is to be effective for producers, there is one key hurdle that must be crossed: they have to use it.

“Not everyone has the upfront cash, wherewithal and management skills to move forward right away with innovation,” says Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork in Edmonton. “The good news is that even little things like high-efficiency lightbulbs and boilers can make a big difference. If we can promote these developments and incentivize people to use them, producers are bound to benefit in the long run.”

To that end, Alberta Pork created a document that highlights advances in technology and their potential impact.

“It’s a matter of saying to producers ‘here is the technology you can use, here is what it does for you, and here is how much it can save,’” says Fitzgerald. “We want to help our members measure the effects of technology on their operation and share that information with others, so that, in the end, everyone wins.”

Feeding a need for progress

On his hog farm in Lambton County, Ont., Mitch Van Engelen requires little encouragement to keep up with technology. In his 400-sow farrow-to-finish operation, he employs a number of devices, including the Nedap Electronic Sow Feeders developed in The Netherlands. These feeders help provide individual attention to each sow based on its needs and performance.

Electronic Feeders for pigs
    Nedap Electronic Feeders feed sows according to their needs - Hog Tied Farms photo

While electronic sow feeders aren’t new, advances in technology are making them more user-friendly. Workers at the Van Engelen farm can access the feeder information from anywhere on their phones and make adjustments on the fly, such as increasing the feed allowance for a sow that is eating everything and wanting more.

“In the farrowing barn, each farrowing crate has an RFID location that the sow's number can be entered into. This allows the sow to stay on the same feed program as our ESFs, but with an increased feed amount. Any changes can be made from a smartphone,” says Van Engelen. “Based on our inputs, the feeders sense which sow is present, how much feed they should be getting, and how far along they are in their insemination date.”

“It is also worth noting that all of our barns are 100 per cent pit ventilated, leaving no ammonia in the barn, reducing our carbon footprint and creating a great working environment with exceptional air quality in the process,” says father John Van Engelen.

According to the Iowa State University website, “buildings with manure storage beneath the floor, often called deep pit buildings, generally have concrete annexes in the deep pit wall which are used for pumping manure from the building. Typically, fans mounted on the covers of these annexes are used for minimum ventilation. This location is used because it is relatively easy to mount a fan on the lid. There is a belief that gases will be drawn down through the flooring, thereby preventing gases in the manure storage from entering the animal zone.” (https://www.extension.iastate.edu/ampat/pit-ventilation)

In the farrowing room, Mitch and John have forced air cylinders to lift the sow if it begins sitting on its piglets; truly a “life or death” technology.

View of Lift Crate holding sow
    Lift crates reduce piglet crushing - Hog Tied Farms photo

“We also have an alarm system that sends an alert to our phone or computer if there is a power outage or a problem with the water or air supply,” says Van Engelen. “If a storm hits, we don’t have to worry about checking things every hour, as we will know right away if something needs attention.”

Though you might think technology is always flashy, with a full complement of bells and whistles, that’s not always the case.

“I heard something very interesting at the Allen D. Leman Swine Conference (a global conference focused on applying science to address pork industry challenges) two years ago,” says Stein. “The chief vet for HANOR (a leading U.S. pork producer) was asked about the best technology they employed that year.”

Instead of citing robots or sensors, she pointed to the humble calipers that they used to check the body condition of sows. Though a simple mechanical device, the vet credited its ability to provide immediate, accurate measurements with saving them millions of dollars in feed costs.

“In general, you are far more likely to overfeed sows than to underfeed them, and the calipers prevented that overfeeding,” says Stein. “This example just illustrates that technology doesn’t always have to be fancy – it just needs to be better than the human eye.”

That said, the calipers will eventually be replaced with cameras, something that many industry experts point to as the “next big thing.” In this case, they would be hung above sows or over the ESF system to take a photo of the animals while eating.

“In the pig and pork space globally today, there are at least 15 to 20 institutions and companies, and more popping up all the time, who have developed, or are developing, camera-based technology to support a variety of uses,” says Polson.

Go with the flow

In relation to pig flow and performance, cameras can count pigs being marketed, aid in body condition scoring and help estimate pig weight. As well, they are able to monitor pig behaviour, both “normal” (eating, drinking, resting, moving) and “abnormal” (aggression – fighting, ear biting, tail biting; discomfort – piling, panting, locomotion/gait/lameness).

Finally, cameras could be applied to detect and monitor animal body temperature for fever using infrared technology.

“There are a lot of technologies and digital tools or platforms currently available for the pork sector, and even more that are emerging,” says Polson.

“Many of them, either alone or in combination, have tremendous potential to create substantial economic value for pork producers; this is an exciting time to be in the swine business.” BP

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