High-Tech camera helps safeguard sows and piglets

Technology allows swine producers to better monitor their pigs, locate sick animals and determines whether management adjustments.

December 26, 2017

3 Min Read
High-Tech camera helps safeguard sows and piglets

By USDA Agricultural Research Service

Agricultural Research Service scientists and collaborators are using 3-D imaging to protect newborn piglets by monitoring adult female pigs' behavior.

Nearly 15% of pre-weaned piglets die each year. According to U.S. pork producers, many are crushed by sows (adult female pigs). Modifying the sows' stalls or crates may help reduce piglet deaths. The first step, according to ARS agricultural engineer Tami Brown-Brandl, is to evaluate sow and piglet behavior in their stalls. Animal behavior contains vital clues about health and well-being that producers can use to better manage their livestock.

Brown-Brandl and a team of scientists from China, Iowa Select Farms and Iowa State University developed a system to automatically process and analyze 3-D images of sows. A camera mounted over birthing crates captures images to determine a sow's behavior and posture: if she's eating, drinking, standing, sitting, or lying down.

The system, which accurately classifies behavior, could potentially help prevent sows from crushing their piglets, according to Brown-Brandl, who works at ARS's Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.

This technology allows swine producers to better monitor their pigs and determines whether management adjustments, such as changes in crate size or pen arrangement, are needed, Brown-Brandl adds. The data could also help producers locate sick animals more quickly.

Precision for pigs

In swine operations, precision farming technology can be a welcome tool for continuous monitoring of an animal’s performance, health, and welfare.

Technology can help producers figure out what’s going on with pigs and whether to make management adjustments, such as changes in feed ration or pen size. It can also help them locate sick animals.

“It can be difficult to detect when just one animal is sick,” says Tami Brown-Brandl, an agricultural engineer at ARS’s Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center(USMARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska. With precision farming, “theoretically, you could detect and treat sick animals sooner and with more accuracy than you could visually. We are using individual animal time at the feeder to predict the next day’s time at the feeder. If the prediction and the actual are too far apart, then we investigate the cause.”

Another use for precision agriculture is marketing pigs, she says. Packers want pigs at the current market weight. The traditional weighing method—running pigs over a scale—is very time consuming for a large number of pigs. Brown-Brandl and her colleagues are developing imaging methods to measure a pig’s weight. They determine the pig’s volume from the pixels in the digital image, and then they use equations to convert volume into weight. She says the error rate is only about 5 percent. “You could put an ink mark on pigs that are market weight and above, so they could be easily sorted,” she says.

They’re also using imaging to prevent sows from crushing their piglets. A 3-D camera, mounted over farrowing crates, takes images used to determine a sow’s posture: whether she’s eating, drinking, standing, sitting, or lying with her udder facing right or left.

“This allows us to evaluate different sizes of farrowing crates and give management recommendations to producers,” Brown-Brandl says.

Read more about this study in the December issue of AgResearch.


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