The Lowdown on High Tech

Progress Means Profit for Producers

By Geoff Geddes

Somewhere there lives a farmer who isn’t short of time or money...just not in this solar system. In a pork business with rollercoaster pricing and razor thin margins, harnessing technology is critical to saving time and money, two things in short supply for pork farmers. Whether it’s ventilation, feed or labour, the latest advances can aid producers in staying sane, solvent and sustainable.

“There is a lot of technology emerging in different areas, but the common thread is that it aims to help producers with the greatest challenges they face today,” says Jacquelin Labrecque, director, R&D with Ro-Main in Saint-Lambert-de-Lauzon, Quebec. Run by owners with over 40 years of experience as hog producers, the company designs, manufactures and distributes products and innovative technologies for farmers in the swine and poultry industries.

“One of the biggest issues for the pork sector is scarcity of skilled labour, as the new generation of workers gravitates to cities and factories ,” says Labrecque. “As a result, automation and tools to help with labour efficiency are a high priority for industry.”

Technology is helping producers optimize production, enhance precision, manage data and make more informed decisions.

“Innovation can also assist in the more social aspects of pig production by enhancing animal welfare and reducing the sector’s environmental footprint,” says Labrecque.

One item that checks a few boxes for producers is the Grower Select Infrared Feed Control from Hog Slat Inc. Based in Newton Grove, North Carolina, Hog Slat is the largest manufacturer of hog production equipment in the U.S. Their Canadian store is located in Mitchell, Ont.

Colour him impressed

“This device is used on finishing and nursery floors to control feed at the end of the feed line,” says Fritz Richards, sales director for Hog Slat. “It has multiple built-in features to run the feed system automatically, and it’s the first device that uses a combination of colors and text to keep the farmer updated.”

Even if a producer is at the other end of the barn, they will see the panel light up green to say it’s running, red to show it’s turned off or purple to indicate the device is in time delay mode.

“Infrared is much more reliable than mechanical feeders, helping to reduce labour and eliminate feed spills,” says Richards.

Also of note is the Infinity fan, which uses advanced motor technology to lower energy costs, improve speed control and reduce maintenance.

“With a conventional fan motor, you can’t really vary the speed because when you slow it down, the torque will usually burn up the motor,” says Richards. “By allowing you to adjust the speed, you can run all fans at 50 per cent at times for greater efficiency and cost savings. As well, because it doesn’t use belts, you avoid issues with belt slippage that might require maintenance, thereby reducing your labor needs.”

Robot to the rescue

As robots become more commonplace in business, they are also entering the pork sector and taking on those tasks that humans love to avoid. The Evo Cleaner pressure washer cleans hog barns with no need for a coffee break, and aims to save producers time and effort while protecting their health in the process.

Evo Cleaner in use
    Tri-Mech photo

“By having the robot do the dirty work, farmers can avoid breathing in all that ammonia and other products of manure that harm the lungs, while avoiding strains and injuries,” says Nick Cole, sales representative for for Tri-Mech Inc. The family owned and operated mechanical contracting firm is based in Drayton, Ont.

“Workers are hard to find these days, so this is one less task that requires extra manpower,” says Cole.

Evo Cleaner joystick
    Tri-Mech photo

Using a joystick, the farmer teaches the robot to clean by showing it the path to take and movements to make in washing that specific barn. The robot stays in the alleyways and reaches into pens with a range of about 24 feet.

At just over five feet tall and weighing 595 lbs, the Evo Cleaner is an imposing figure. The price tag of about $75,000 (which includes training and storage service) may intimidate as well, but some will find the benefits are worth the cost.

Evo Cleaner in use
    Tri-Mech photo

“Instead of bringing in a custom washer or hiring an extra person to do the job, producers can leave it to the robot,” says Cole.

Breed to succeed

In pig production, nothing breeds success like proper breeding, and technology is making its presence felt on that front as well.

“We recently introduced a technology known as smaRt Breeding, that monitors the behavior of sows to predict the optimal time for single dose insemination,” says Labrecque. “The idea was to lower the cost of breeding and make it more precise, so that’s what we did.”

SmaRt Breeding shifts the focus from using standard proximity sensors to monitoring sows with cameras. One camera follows four sows 24/7, tracking their individual changes in behavior caused by hormonal changes at ovulation to gauge the best timing for insemination.

Red ink to black

Based on the success with smaRt Breeding, the company turned their attention to another critical area for pork producers. In a business where every dollar counts, smaRt Counting could change red ink to black on the balance sheet.

“This technology is essentially a pig counter, where a camera is mounted on the ceiling above barn alleyways where the pigs run,” says Labrecque. “When you ship pigs off the farm, you want to make sure the count is accurate since you are paid based on numbers.”

Similarly, farmers receiving pigs pay based on the total number of animals, so every transaction requires accurate counting to avoid added expense or lost revenue. The company found that most people make several mistakes in counting that can add up to a one per cent error in the final number.

SmaRT Breeding App screen
    Ro-Main photo

“Pigs are not cheap, so we knew there was a need for a system that could fully automate the task of counting them,” says Labrecque. “This technology eliminates the hazards of human error and guarantees 99.9 per cent accuracy every time.”

The drive for data

These two “smart” products demonstrate the use of data and automation to help producers make more informed decisions. In fact, the industry’s approach to data has helped shape the evolution of technology, and data collection and use will continue to have an impact going forward.

“One of the big advantages of technology for pork producers is the ability to monitor and input production data from all stages of their operations for the entire herd,” says Dave Vandenberg, operations manager at Arkell Research Station in Guelph, Ont.

“As part of precision livestock farming, we can use these technologies to manage herds more precisely; either individually for sows or as a group for grow/finish pigs,” says Vandenberg. “We can now track and/or control individual feed intake, pig weights and health, breeding, litter specifics, farrowing rates, treatments, vaccinations and behaviour.”

Producers are able to manage pigs individually with electronic ear tags that can communicate with antennas and be used for monitoring and tracking the sow or piglets. The tags tie into portable device apps that send information to a database, which in turn sorts the data.

“That data is accessed locally or remotely and presented in a way that is easy for farmers to analyze,” says Vandenberg. “Based on that data, producers can make decisions on managing their herds to get the best production results and, ultimately, generate the most profit.”

For example, data from the monitoring of sows can be used to adjust feeding curves and optimize farrowing rates, or to manage sow weights to ensure the best fertility numbers.

While technology is often front and centre on farm (hard not to notice a 600-lb robot), it also works behind the scenes to benefit producers.

“People think of technology as electronics, but that is not always the case,” says Richards. “It could be a new equipment design or an enhancement to the way a product is manufactured.”

Floored by technology

As an illustration, Richards points to the Hog Slat galvanized triangular bar (TriDEK) flooring system, which is a metal flooring option for nursery pigs and farrowing barns.

“The way we make the flooring system today is through new technology that automates the manufacturing process,” says Richards. “We use more robotic welding, resulting in higher quality and greater strength than we used to attain with the system; that is all due to technology. So when the farmer puts TriDEK flooring in his barn, he may not be using technology per se, but he is benefitting from innovation that makes the product better and more cost effective.”

Though the presence of technology is widespread and impactful in the pork sector, the best may be yet to come.

“There are a variety of ways to automate equipment,” says Labrecque. “Automated ventilation is standard today, but you can also program equipment to be more precise. In the future, you will see ventilation systems that are optimized not only based on standard variables like temperature, but also linked to weather forecasts to maximize energy use efficiency. These systems will also consider the behavior of the animals, as ultimately what we want are environmental conditions in which pigs can grow most effectively and give the best return on investment.”

Feeling the heat

Though information on temperature can be useful, it does not tell the producer anything about the health and well-being of the animals at a particular moment. Are they feeling well? Are they under heat stress or too cold? These are questions that could support the growth of pigs, and while such a system is fiction today, new computerized technology could make it a reality down the road.

“We will be able to sense the body temperature of animals and monitor their posture and movement,” says Labrecque. “Where are they located in the pen? Are they all in the same area or dispersed? This can tell you whether a pig is under heat stress, suffering from cold conditions or doing just fine.”

Labrecque sees a disconnect today in aspects like ventilation, as producers are focused on controlling temperature when their main priority for the business is pig growth.

“We need to be able to measure what we want to control, and that will be a growing focus as technology continues to evolve,” says Labrecque.

Another development that holds great promise is the shift from using algorithms to digest data to the application of machine learning, which allows technology to learn from what it did in the past and adjust to improve performance.

“Instead of programming the equipment by ourselves, we will let computers digest millions of data points and attain levels of precision that we never thought possible,” says Labrecque. “This evolution will no doubt bring some challenges of its own, and it is not a simple technology to work with, but the possibilities presented by machine learning are enticing enough to make it worth the effort.”

Many industry observers share Labrecque’s excitement and optimism around technology for the pork industry.

“The pork business is becoming very technical, whether it is lifting crates for sows, automatic feeders or high-tech ventilation,” says Cole.

“A lot of people are on board with these advances because they come with proven benefits, and we have only just begun to innovate.”

Borrowing an example from the dairy industry, Cole cites the prolific use of robot milkers today.

Ten years ago, no one thought they would come to fruition, and now it is rare to find a dairy barn without one.

At the same time, while the future is intriguing to say the least, it perhaps should come with a caveat.

“I encourage technology, yet learning how to apply it properly is equally important,” says Cole.

“If you give someone the latest sensor or robot and they don’t know how to use it, that item becomes a hinderance, and the user is likely to get frustrated and give up on it. That said, the potential for on-farm technology is limitless, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.” BP

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