As a Hawkeye Community College student working on a farm in northern Iowa, Matthew Rooda found nothing more devastating than coming to work each morning and finding dozens of crushed baby piglets.
An assistant farm manager at a farrow-to-finish farm near Waterloo, Rooda and others on the farm team implemented good caregiver and husbandry practices, and used top genetics, farrowing crates and heat lamps — but the farm could not be staffed 24/7, and the extra measures just weren’t taking care of the issue.
“I soon realized that with the growing born alive [piglet numbers] that we have today, that those solutions just aren’t quite enough,” Rooda says. “We were still seeing increasing piglet deaths due to crushing, and we needed something that could proactively solve this problem in real time because preventive methods just weren’t enough.”
Accelerator times two
Two years later, Rooda transferred to the University of Iowa to pursue a degree in genetics and biotechnology. It was during his time there that he started getting industry push to create a solution to stop piglet crushing. Rooda, along with his best friend, Abraham Espinoza, a computer science and engineering student, joined the University of Iowa Student Accelerator and Iowa Startup Accelerator to get help with their research, development and overall business plan.
After just a month in the Iowa Startup Accelerator, the duo partnered with John Rourke, an Iowa Startup Accelerator engineering instructor, who was able to successfully develop an algorithm that could detect the squeal of a piglet being crushed.
Rooda and Espinoza soon found themselves dropping out of school for a semester to focus on their company, SwineTech — an animal health company that creates artificially intelligent devices to aid pork producers in creating a more efficient workplace, while ensuring no piglet is left behind — and the development of their product, SmartGuard.
“It was a pretty crazy process. It revolved a lot around the University of Iowa — them giving us the resources we needed early on to get this off the ground, and get the press that we needed to create some validity around it. The Iowa government, along with the Iowa Startup Accelerator, did a lot for us to get us going,” Rooda says. “Over the next few years, it was just a matter of bringing in funding, hiring really great people and working with some of the best people in the world — which are farmers.”
In 2019, the Cedar Rapids-based company was selected to be part of The Pearse Lyons Accelerator program, Alltech’s launch pad for food and ag tech industry disruptors. The program provides opportunities for companies to develop fledgling ideas in agriculture, food and ag tech and get them market-ready.
Today, Rooda estimates SmartGuard is protecting more than a million pigs from being lain on and crushed by sows. A small figure, Rooda says — considering that last year, more than 160 million pigs around the world died from piglet crushing, resulting in the waste of more than 34 billion pounds of pork.
SmartGuard is an autonomous farm assistant device including an intelligent sensor that listens for the high-pitched squeal of piglets. The algorithm then detects the prolonged squeals of a piglet in distress. Once the device detects a piglet being crushed, it alerts the sow to roll over or stand up using a vibratory signal. If the sow doesn’t respond, another impulse will be sent six seconds later.
Rooda says 87% of the time the sow will stand up; but if she doesn’t move, the device will send an alert to the pork producer.
“This is a completely autonomous device. But for a producer, if they were to log on to a computer or tablet or phone, they could see on our dashboard what sows were frequently lying on their piglets, what the environmental conditions on a per-pen basis are — and what sows are standing up, and how many times they were getting up on a 24-hour rolling basis,” Rooda says. “So we’re able to also identify some key health and behavioral risks going on in the facilities.”
Since releasing the product on the market, SwineTech has been working with Kansas State University researchers, nutritionists, industry veterinarians and several of the top 40 U.S. pork producers who have been testing the technology. Rooda says many have reported positive results, seeing up to a 66% reduction in crushing in the first three days.
Livestock lives improved
“The [SmartGuard] technology as a whole is a platform in the farrowing environment that is ultimately making the life of a producer easier and the life of a pig better; and what we’re trying to do is not only just prevent deaths in real time, but also collect the information that really matters to nutrition, to animal health, to swine genetics,” Rooda says.
Ultimately, Rooda says they are trying to make things better for the farmer and for the animal, but the technology should also assure consumers that livestock lives are being improved.
“It’s extremely important to us that these animals grow up in a good environment and thrive; and if we can give more information to the producer and more information to the veterinarian, then it’s all going to come back — and it’s just going to be better off for the pig as a whole,” Rooda says. “There’s a lot of transparencies that we can give to the consumer, such as what is the exercise they are getting daily, when are they giving birth, how was that birthing process observed … If I’m a consumer and I know that my food I’m eating had minute-by-minute health tracking, I’m going to feel pretty good that they had as much support and oversight as possible, and had the best care.”