Four PLF technologies that will help manage barns better

​​​​​​​NC State engineer details applicable, affordable solutions that address animal health, labor challenges.

Ann Hess, Content Director

June 6, 2022

6 Min Read
Handheld thermal imaging device being used on a pig farm
iStock/Getty Images Plus/Suljo

As an engineer, Suzanne Leonard gravitates toward the discussion of technology and precision livestock farming, but the North Carolina State University assistant professor and swine Extension specialist recognizes not all solutions available are going to be practical for every situation and every farm.

"I think that from the area of PLF, to me, the greatest advantage are things that address animal health and labor," Leonard says.

When it comes to adding new technology to production sites, Leonard says first and foremost it must be applicable and affordable. Here are four technologies she believes can easily be implemented on farm to help manage barns better:

Weather Meter: Retails for around $160. Measures temperature, relative humidity and air speed.

"We all know that our barn environments are corrosive, and we have different gases and temperature fluctuations to deal with, and so it's always a good idea to go back periodically and check on our technologies and make sure they're functioning properly," Leonard says. "So, if you have a mechanical ventilation system that's running based off of a temperature sensor it's a pretty good idea to periodically go through and confirm that your temperature sensor is putting out the right temperature and so you can use these simple weather meters to go through and do that."

Weather meters can also be used to measure airflow in barns.

"We have highly tuned, highly complex ventilation systems that have really been designed to operate in a certain manner and by going through periodically and checking those ventilation rates you can use these small pieces of technology to make sure our big pieces of ventilation technology are performing as close to intended as possible," Leonard says. "They're also a really neat tool that you can use to check your airflow on your evaporative cooling pads to make sure that they're still in good condition and operating as you need them to."

Thermal USB camera: Retails from $130 to $300. Plugs directly into smartphone, easy to operate and store images, but relatively low accuracy.

"It turns any regular smartphone into its own standalone thermal camera and so you can take these and point them around your barn in order to get an idea of the various surface temperatures that you're seeing," Leonard says. "Now the downside of these cameras being so inexpensive is that they do have relatively low accuracy and so you can only get within about five-degree Fahrenheit, maybe eight-degree accuracy with these cheaper cameras. So, you're not going to be able to point this camera at a sow and tell she has a fever or identify a piglet that's chilled."

Instead, Leonard advises using the thermal USB camera to evaluate facilities in the summertime to spot areas of missing insulation.

"As a lot of our barns start to age over time, as we maybe incur a few rodent friends in our areas, and have some degradation over time our insulation may break down or fall out and so making sure that we can check where those areas are and highlight those missing areas can really help you streamline your improvements and identify places where you may have leakages in your barn," Leonard says. "By making sure our barn is as tight as possible this can really save us some heating expense in the winter and cooling expense in the summer."

Thermal cameras can also be used to identify drafts around doorways and windows.

"If you have a large gap underneath your doorway or missing some caulking on your cracks, using this cheap thermal camera tool can really help you get the most out of your facility that you're using and again a really accessible technology, that regardless of the stage of production that you're in, can be really useful in improving your overall state," Leonard says.

Automatic farrowing monitor: A low-cost system to automatically detect piglet birth. Digital and thermal images are collected one image per second.

"It's not feasible for each caretaker to monitor every sow every piglet every time and so our research group took on this challenge to try and develop a low-cost automated sensor that we could just place over the sow when she's farrowing so we could automatically know the time that each piglet was born. If we know when each piglet is born then we can either alert the caretaker that they need to go and attend that piglet and get it dried off. Moreover, we can know the inter birth interval so we can identify some of those sows that are having more trouble farrowing and attend and intervene in a more timely fashion," Leonard says.

NC State researchers have been collecting data over the last year on 20 sows giving birth, with a digital camera over the back of the sow stall, as well as a custom thermal computer vision system. With the cameras, the team collects one image every second, first with the digital to confirm when the piglets were born and then with the thermal camera to identify farrowing issues.

"As that sow pushes out her first piglet you'll see that larger hotter blob show up in the thermal camera image in the back of the stall and this is really what we are targeting because when those piglets are first born their surface temperature is going to be similar to the internal body temp of the sow," Leonard says. "We'll be able to pick up that piglet whenever its first born, because it's going to be the hottest thing in the room in the view of the camera."

Preliminary results from the study are pointing to a 72% accuracy rate, with the research team accurately identifying about three out of every four piglets that are being born.

Leonard acknowledges further improvement is needed with the system as they have been picking up a lot of false positives and it struggles sometimes if piglets are born and then they walk out of the image. When the piglet re-enters, the system sometimes thinks it's a new piglet being born.

"We are still working out some of those bugs to get our numbers up, to be a low-cost fully autonomous system, but this is really an exciting step forward in this process for the research group here," Leonard says.

Ultra-high frequency radio-frequency identification system: Ability to monitor individual pigs. Record tags from 0 to 50 feet distance.

NC State recently invested in a UHD RFID System as a resource for upcoming trials. With RFID technology one ear tag is placed per pig with a unique number identifier and then a reader or an antenna can be placed on various areas within the pen.

"That way you can know where the pigs are and what they're around," Leonard says. "For example, you could place the reader on the feeder and then you could capture individual animal feeding behavior — how long the pigs come up to eat, what times they approach. We're really excited about this system because it's going to be flexible enough that we can test out different feeder designs, diets, drinker configurations, even getting behavior information if you're going to change space allocation per animal."

The NC State research team plans to collect nutrition and individual animal behavior data with the UHF RFID system.

Leonard recognizes there is room for improvement with each of these technologies, but she expects to see more PLF tools such as these implemented on farms in the next two to five years.

"These things do take time to really work out all the kinks and bugs and make them widely applicable to a variety of situations, and then to build the producer and consumer support and trust," Leonard says.

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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