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New controller technology enhances management precision and simplicity at Illinois Sow Farm

As a full-time pork producer who is also responsible for taking care of her own family, Clare Schilling welcomes new technologies that can help simplify and streamline the management of her hog operations. Despite recent advancements in many facets of pork production, most swine facilities today still rely on older, less efficient technology when it comes to environmental controllers.

Typically, in multi-room barns, each room has its own controller, requiring producers to check each one individually to ensure that all vital functions, such as ventilation, heating and cooling, are functioning properly. And that takes time away from other important responsibilities, both on and off the farm.

“Traditional sow farms can be very large operations, and historically, they have not had a good way to get an overview of their whole operation,” said Adam Weiss, director of global protein technology for AP (Automated Production Systems). “There are lots of independent controls for each room, and to see how everything is running, producers have to physically walk to each room. And older systems do not have remote connectivity.”

Clare, 32, and her 28-year-old brother, Drew Schilling, are co-owners of Sis-Bro, Inc., a 2,800-sow operation that began production in January, 2016, in Coulterville, Ill. Because they also oversee the original family swine operation, CD Bell, Inc., located about 20 miles away, in New Athens, Ill., the Schillings realized that a more efficient approach was needed to monitor and manage the day-to-day operations of their new facility, especially when they are at the other site. 

Sis-Bro decided to install AP’s new EDGE controller in the Coulterville operation. This control system handles all of the operational functions in a pork production environment, including ventilation, cooling, heating, feeding and watering systems from a single controller using one interface.

Because of its multi-room, multi-barn control capability, the system reduces management complexity and provides significant cost savings by eliminating the need for a separate controller for each individual barn.

Clare spends about two-thirds of her time at the new location managing all facets of the facility, including gestation, farrowing, gilt development and nursery/breeding. In all, the operation consists of four connected barns with a total of 14 rooms and produces about 1,200 weaned pigs per week. Each month, 200 gilts bred through maternal genetics are retained for future breeding inventory.

Remote connectivity provides peace of mind

For Clare, one of the system’s biggest advantages is remote connectivity that enables her to monitor operations when she is away from the Coulterville location. Besides the demands of caring for animals at two large sow farms, she also has all the responsibilities of being a wife and mother, with two young children. “One of the challenges I face is balancing being a mom and my job in swine production,” she said. “This job is my life, but I also love being with my family.”

With EDGE, she can monitor and change environmental controls from any computer, smart phone or other hand-held device. “I can turn my heat lamps on and off from my phone at home,” she said. “I don’t even have to log on to my computer. Being able to always know what’s going on is really nice and definitely provides peace of mind.”

A text message or email provides an immediate notification if a problem occurs and an alarm is set off. For example, Clare received an alarm about a cooling problem in the Sis-Bro gestation barn when she was at the New Athens farm. Using her smart phone, she was able to determine that a circuit breaker had switched off and contacted an on-site employee to fix the problem.

Remote connectivity is also a benefit in promoting bio-security, which continues to be a critical issue facing hog producers. Animal health and well-being are top priorities at both locations, where employees are required to shower in and change clothes and shoes before entering the barns. Reducing the number of back and forth visits between the two operations is one more way to help protect animal health.

“If I am working at our New Athens location and receive an alert from the new site, I can usually               determine what the issue is and resolve it remotely,” Clare said. “That eliminates the need to drive to that farm and enter the facility, which could be a bio-security risk, however small.” 

Also promoting a healthy environment is the fact that EDGE offers more precise control of environmental functions. For example, older controllers act like thermostats, simply turning on more fans to increase ventilation. With EDGE, ventilation controls can be configured based on the desired air volume per animal, regardless of how many animals are in the barn.               

In addition, the system features a weather station that allows users to monitor outside wind speed and direction. If the wind is favorable, the control will use natural ventilation instead of power or tunnel ventilation, saving on energy usage.

Weiss notes that some older control systems also offer remote connectivity, but they typically require an Internet Service Provider to provide a static IP address, directly linked to the controller. This not only requires IT knowledge to set up, but also can leave the system vulnerable to security risks. “EDGE is a true cloud-based system that can be accessed from anywhere in the world by logging onto,” he explained. “And it is a secure https site with the same authentication security level of a bank system.”

The system also offers three layers of protection, with fail-safe redundancy to control mission-critical functions.

Ease of use

Given the challenges of running two sow farms on a 24/7 basis, Clare and Drew appreciate that EDGE is easy to learn and use. “They do a great job raising their animals, and the same is true for adopting this new controller technology and successfully going through the learning curve,” said Weiss.

A 15-inch color touchscreen provides quick, easy navigation and site-wide monitoring, including color-coded notifications that provide real-time status of the entire operation in a quick glance. “EDGE can draw your attention to a lot of smaller issues that you normally would not catch,” said Drew, who manages the mechanical and technical requirements at the new farm, as well as grain operations at both locations. “You can resolve a lot of things without having to physically see them. It’s a vast improvement over the other systems we are used to.”

For example, EDGE detected a high amp reading from one of the fans. It turned out to be a simple issue – a fan blade was barely skimming the fan housing. Had it not been detected and repaired, the fan motor would have burned out prematurely. “I like that the system gives me a lot of information, wherever I am, with the ability to change settings, as well as enable or disable functions,” Drew said.

Clare said improved durability is another benefit. The controller has an environment-proof design to perform in tough pork production environments, including high humidity, wide temperature swings and corrosive gases such as ammonia, which can cause premature equipment wear and failure.

The watering system in the gestation barn is also controlled by EDGE, automatically turning on and off the supply to minimize water loss. Feeding systems are expected to be integrated as well when AP incorporates that function into the controller platform in the near future.

Multi-language capability is another important capability, since several of the 11 employees at the new operation primarily speak Spanish. They can use EDGE’s multi-language feature, an additional benefit beyond the fact that Clare took Spanish lessons to enhance communications with her staff. 

Plans for expansion

With its modular design, the EDGE platform can be built to meet each operation’s specific requirements, as well as expand to meet future needs. Weiss said whether a producer has a large operation with dozens of sites or a smaller facility with one or two barns, the controller platform can be scaled with the required number of control inputs and outputs, becoming more economical as the operation expands.

Sis-Bro has ambitious plans to double the size of the operation, from the current 2,800 sows to 5,600, within two years, which will make EDGE an even more important tool at that location. “Pig production has gotten a lot more complex, and I am excited about what EDGE is capable of doing,” Drew said. “Needs are always changing and the platform has to be versatile.”