Researchers have built the first prototype of a combined RFID and camera solution as part of a two-year development project funded by a grant from EU’s 7th Framework Programme for Research. The special camera will make it possible to identify sick pigs in the agricultural sector’s huge pigsties.
Modern pork production is concentrated in fewer and larger farms, and the number of animals per herd has increased significantly over the past few years. This makes it more difficult for the farmer to make routine health checks on the individual animal. In order to solve this problem, researchers have developed a new system with electronic ear tags (RFID) and a 3D camera which can monitor the animals’ well-being in the pigsties and detect illness at an early stage.
Monitoring at an individual level
The ear tags are familiar RFID equipment which is used e.g. for labelling clothes to prevent shoplifting from stores. The cameras are based on Kinect sensor technology which is familiar from the Microsoft Xbox 360 console. Together the two technologies are able to monitor many hundreds of pigs in a herd with the help of a computer which is pre-programmed to recognise and follow the individual animal’s feeding pattern.
The system sends an alarm to the farmer if one of the pigs begins to change its behaviour to a degree that exceeds a defined threshold limit value for feeding frequency and length of feeding on an individual basis.
Feeding pattern reveals distress and illness
The 3D cameras being used in the project are able to see in the dark so it is possible to follow the animal’s feeding pattern 24 hours a day. They can also check that the ear marking technology is working as it should.
A computer logs the time and duration of each pig’s consumption of feed in a database and builds up a behavioural profile for the individual animal in the herd. Subsequently, it can alert personnel working in the pigsty about animal distress far earlier than would be possible via daily inspection. This is because an animal feeding less often than it usually does, or feeding for a shorter time is a clear sign of illness, explains Associate Professor Torben Gregersen.
”We can log the time and duration of the pig’s consumption of feed in a database and in this way obtain detailed knowledge of the individual animal’s feeding pattern. Deviations from the normal feeding pattern are an important indicator of distress and the system therefore quickly alerts the personnel and indicates which of the animals it is,” explains Torben Gregersen.
Where is pig number 428?
Today pork production is concentrated in fewer and larger farms all over Europe and tracking a single animal can therefore be somewhat of a challenge. Here the camera technology offers another smart solution. It ”looks” down on the pigsty and follows the pigs as unique graphic objects so that it can retrieve information on the location of the individual animal at all times.
The farmer can also be equipped with a control unit such as a mobile phone. Here he keys in ”find 428” and the location of the pig in the pigsty is displayed on a digital map. At the same time, the computer controls a spotlight which shines a light on pig number 428. This makes a significantly improved and more systematic supervision of each animal’s welfare possible and also solves a major problem:
”It is clear that as pig herds grow bigger and bigger so does the need for new technology that can make it easier to monitor and identify the animals,” says Torben Gregersen from Aarhus University.
Aarhus University has established a test pigsty with the prototype of the monitoring system in Merelbeke in Belgium. The first results show that the technology makes it possible to identify sick pigs very quickly and thus reduce the risk of infection in the herd and subsequent financial losses for the farmer.
Fewer antibiotics in the test pigsty
At the researchers’ test pigsty in Belgium, they have succeeded in discovering illnesses in the slaughter pigs up to four days before the farmer would otherwise be able to register distress. This makes it possible to quickly commence on a course of treatment and thereby reduce the risk of infection.
Thanks to this early automatic identification of sick pigs, the farmer only has to treat the sick pig instead of treating large numbers or even the whole herd with antibiotics.
This can significantly reduce the total consumption of antibiotics.