Iowa State University doctoral candidate strives to make swine barns more efficient, profitable.

Ann Hess, Content Director

August 23, 2019

12 Min Read
During his master’s research, Ben Smith developed a mobile air filter testing laboratory for Iowa Select that is capable of on-site testing of filter resistance (airflow at a design pressure difference). The MAFT can travel to rural swine facilities and test a representative sample of both pre-filters and V-bank filter pairs.Courtesy of Ben Smith

“Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.”

On May 24, 1904, the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, uttered that quote during a speech at the Prize Day Exercises at Groton School in Massachusetts.

More than 115 years later, that phrase could just as easily describe the approach Ben Smith has taken toward his research as a doctoral student in industrial and agricultural technology at Iowa State University.

“I’m striving to have my research be very practical and beneficial for the industry, so that when other producers are reading the results of our research, they’re really not questioning, ‘Is this even similar to what my operation is going to be like for conditions?’ ” Smith says.

“I’m trying to have a very practical approach to it, so that we’re getting useful information and building these really good research relationships with the producers. So, they will let us in the future — when we have other projects come up — they want us to come back and do research with them, let us use their facilities,” he says. “I definitely try to take that very practical approach, and I think that helps really strengthen our research projects quite a bit.”

Brett Ramirez, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, says that practicality Smith incorporates into his solutions to challenges facing the U.S. swine industry have made him truly an outstanding student.

“We are in dire need of individuals to continue to advance ventilation systems, facility construction and our understanding of how the barn environment impacts production animals,” Ramirez says. “The industry will need to know Ben, because he will ultimately be managing and creating the next generation of advanced swine production systems for improved efficiency and profitability.”

After seeing the rising star’s innovative, novel and collaborative research thus far to advance different aspects of swine production, the industry can expect to see many more contributions in the future.

Forestry to farrowing
A native of western Colorado, Smith grew up surrounded by the logging and coal mining industries, as that was his family’s main source of income. It wasn’t until his freshman year of high school, and after joining FFA, that Smith was exposed to pork production.

“Our chapter had two sows we farrowed out twice a year, and my first or second week in high school, my ag teacher forced my hand to come in and help with it,” Smith says. “I came in, like, the third Sunday my freshman year and helped farrow sows and really got interested, and bought a couple gilts and barrows out of that and started my own herd that year; and it really sparked my interest.”

From there, Smith had his own pigs and also helped work with a couple producers in the area who had 50 to 100 sows each. After making a connection with Phenotypic Acres, a Berkshires pork production system in Ames, Iowa, the young swine enthusiast set his sights on Iowa State University to further his experience in the industry. 

It was a move Smith says his family fully supported.

“It was a really viable option,” Smith says. “I think the swine industry, relative to those industries back home, is stronger and has better future potential. With regulations, climate and culture there, I think they agree it was a better option for myself.”


Right place, right time
Once Smith established himself at ISU, he decided to pursue a double major in animal science and agricultural systems technology.

“Engineering is a lot more design, and technology is lot more application,” Smith says. “I really like working on things, how they work— how everything works as a system as a whole — and that’s really what drove me towards working more on that side.”

Smith was so eager to keep focusing on the technology part of his studies that he started pursuing his master’s degree in industrial and agricultural technology before he had obtained both of his undergrad degrees.

“I kind of staggered out my undergrad,” Smith says. “They have a concurrent program that allows you as a senior to start graduate school, so I started my senior year in grad school and kind of delayed my double major graduate classes.”

It also helped that Smith found support academically and financially at that time. After completing a few rounds of internships during his undergrad with Iowa Select Farms in health services, feed and nutrition, and ventilation, as well as completing a few research projects for Iowa Select, Smith says he really enjoyed working there.

Over the years, he had also established a solid relationship with Jay Harmon, a professor in ISU’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, and participated in a study abroad with him.

“I was talking to both Dr. Harmon and Iowa Select Farms, and that actually worked out where they ended up funding me to go to grad school for a project and it was kind of off chance — the right time, right moment that led me to grad school,” Smith says. “They had an interest to send me to grad school, and Dr. Harmon was open to taking me on at the time, so it just kind of worked out well.”

Mastering filter resistance
Smith’s master’s work revolved around filter testing at Iowa Select’s sow and gilt farms that were being retrofitted for positive pressure filtration. Filter resistance testing at a site occurs frequently due to dust loading, causing an increase in differential pressure and a reduction in airflow.

However, the cost associated with shipping and testing filter pairs at an off-site, third-party laboratory can be prohibitive if a large number of filters is needed to make improved management decisions for filter replacement.

An in situ monitoring system for monitoring filter resistance and airflow requires the pressure differential across the filters and across the fans to be monitored, as well as fan power consumption. Since inlet air filters are installed in either large common filter banks with multiple fans or over all ceiling inlets, monitoring pressure drop quickly becomes a technical challenge.

The variable airflow system used in animal houses also complicates in situ, with all filters being used at every airflow rate. This method would also require a fan calibration to calculate a pressure differential, and airflow relationship for the filters required, to interpret the filter pressure difference correctly.

Instead, Smith developed a mobile air filter testing laboratory for Iowa Select that is capable of on-site testing of just filter resistance (airflow at a design pressure difference). The MAFT can travel to rural swine facilities and test a representative sample of both pre-filters and V-bank filter pairs.

The test results can include a quantified standard uncertainty associated with final airflow prediction for confidence and improved reliability — comparable to an off-site, third-party laboratory.

Smith says both time and expenses can be substantially reduced with a MAFT by eliminating filter shipping and decreasing the overall time from sampling to receiving test results.

“I spent about a year developing and testing that lab, and then about nine months on farm testing the project — and really, to know their baseline and how long the filters were going to last and what that was affecting,” Smith says.

The second part of Smith’s master’s project was finding a way to determine the life span of air filters on swine sites. For commercial rooftop heating, ventilation and air conditioning units in urban settings, data have been gathered on the dust concentrations, allowing for the prediction of filter life span. However, there were no such data from swine facilities, where air intakes are usually near ground level.

Smith conducted a study to measure the airflow reduction rate of pre-filters on Iowa Select’s commercial swine sites in central Iowa that used positive-pressure-ventilated buildings. The objectives of this study were to determine an average pre-filter airflow reduction rate per day; quantify the impact of site layout, filter brand and weather on the airflow reduction rate of such filters; and determine methods for reducing average pre-filter airflow reduction rate per day during row crop harvest season.

From the study, the young researcher concluded that both filter brand and the installed orientation of the filter significantly impacted airflow reduction rates, and site layout also played a significant role in an air filter’s life span.

Smith says he hopes both of his master’s projects have helped Iowa Select better manage its filter system.

“They’re definitely using the results of my research to drive those replacement decisions instead of changing out the whole site — selectively changing parts of the site out, where it clearly is going to need it, and letting other filters go longer to save on replacement costs,” Smith says. “Those are big decisions. The big item that came out of my research is better management of the filters on the farms.”


New solutions, old problems
With that research project complete and another degree gained, Smith decided to continue his studies with a doctorate, and again, his timing was on target.

“It just worked out that there was a new professor starting in our department right about the same time, and I just came on under him,” Smith says.

That professor was Ramirez, and in summer 2018, he was ready to take Smith under his wing.

One of Smith’s main projects is research that’s funded through the ISU Center for Industrial Research and Service and FarrPro, and involves working with the company’s new product, Haven. The research revolves around 12 sow units and two farrowing rooms, where Smith is evaluating production, mortalities, average daily gain, thermal environment and energy usage.

He’s also working on a heat stress research project for the National Pork Board that uses control algorithms to calculate how long it would take the barn to evaporate water after running sprinklers. That project kicked off this summer at a couple of commercial sites through Christensen Farms.

What attracts Smith the most to both research projects is the fact they are both trying to find innovative solutions to industry-old problems.

“I think it takes completely new, innovative ways — because otherwise, I think all of our solutions are going to look very similar, and we’re really not going to see any changes. So, I think it does take a completely new novel approach to find a solution that’s going to work, and I think that’s definitely the way we’re approaching research with these two projects,” Smith says.

“It is kind of a completely new approach through this precision livestock farming mentality or movement.”

Smith hasn’t only been involved in research. This fall he will enter his third year teaching a course called Animal Production Systems. The course encompasses all the animal system needs for animal housing such as ventilation, design and management.

He’s also involved with the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Graduate organization and is a member of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

Precision livestock farming
Smith plans to graduate in May 2021. His wife, Sarah, who hails from Iowa, is also working on her doctorate in agricultural education. Upon graduation, the couple’s tentative plan is stay in the state, near family.

“I’m really torn [about] where I see myself: in the industry doing research technology-type projects, or I could also see myself on the academic side as a professor or research scientist,” Smith says. “I’m just really not 100% sold on one side or the other, industry or academia.”

While Smith may not know where he plans to go after his doctorate, he does know what he would like to focus on.

“Precision livestock farming is really drawing my interest, in how that’s going to encompass the environment or ventilation or biosecurity, like filtration,” Smith says.

“I would like to draw all those different disciplines into precision livestock farming — to be the most impactful, have the best outcome, that we’re making the best decisions overall and including all aspects of what goes into production and making it work the best, so we can be the most efficient.”

Smith sees a strong need for more personnel in barn and environmental management in the industry.

“That isn’t always the most lucrative part of swine production, but it definitely has a really big impact, and it can really impact the bottom line. It drives production efficiency from the get-go, so I really see there’s going to be a strong need for people with the understanding of how to manage it,” Smith says.

“The research is always going to be there, but I think the industry is really going to need people to manage the environment, so that we can continue to make these efficiency improvements and be more sustainable.

I think environment and barn management and ventilation systems is going to be that next big hurdle. While a lot of swine producers understand and know what’s going on, knowing how to change it to make everything more efficient is probably the next hurdle we need to overcome,” he says.

Challenge: educating public
There may always be room for improvement in terms of efficiency and sustainability; however, Smith says one of the swine industry’s biggest challenges is educating consumers and the public about the all of the major strides the industry has already made.

“I think swine producers have already been doing quite a bit of measures that have made a tremendous impact from where we were 20 or 30 years ago, and I think [by] bridging that gap, so that the consumer and the public understand that we’ve already doing quite a bit on how we manage our sites, manage production, and be more sustainable and efficient,” Smith says.

“From an educational side, it is really going to be a huge factor moving forward, getting our story and our side of it out to the public in a way that helps them understand we are already a sustainable system.”

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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