9 November 2001

Spy in the sty keeps check on pig production

You may be baffled by it, but

todays developing

technology has the potential

to revolutionise livestock

farming, taking the drudgery

out of daily tasks and

hopefully improving farm

margins. Hannah Velten

kicks off this special by

looking at pig monitoring

technology in practice

DO YOU know what your pigs get up to once the door is closed for the night?

Big Brother-style monitoring systems can provide useful insights into pig behaviour, indicating possible faults in production methods.

Roger Boston, pig production manager at Bury St Edmunds-based George Gittus and Sons has been using a monitoring system for four years in the units nursery and finishing accommodation.

Sensors in the nursery building, which houses up to 6500 piglets, monitor floor temperature – piglets lie on heated floors – air temperature, water intake, time the feed auger is running, the position of ventilation curtains and wind speed and direction.

One stockman has responsibility for nursery housing. "The monitoring equipment allows him to spend more time concentrating on pigs rather than checking equipment is working and fiddling around with control dials," says Mr Boston.

Nick Bird of Farmex, explains how sensors attached to controls in the building continually gather and record data. "This information is sent to a central processing facility via a phone connection. It is analysed and transferred back to the unit on a daily basis to be viewed in graph form over the internet."

Every morning, all monitoring data from the previous day and night is produced in graph form for each house and sent directly to the units office computer, says Mr Boston.

Graphs are checked for any patterns that are out of the ordinary. But it takes a while to recognise normal and irregular patterns, adds Mr Boston. "As information is stored, we are able to look back at data produced by a poor batch of finished pigs to find a reason for their reduced performance and learn the type of warning patterns."

Any anomaly on a graph is checked within 24 hours, such as a rise in air temperature caused by faulty ventilation or a feed auger breaking down, he adds.

Patterns of water consumption are looked at every three days. "Water intake is a good indicator of feed intake in young pigs. An increase could indicate a leak or a problem with the feed, but any change in pattern prompts the question: Why?"

Mr Bird believes water intake provides a window on the interaction of pigs with their environment (see graphs). "An absence of clear daily patterns of water intake usually indicates social behaviours have broken down – tail-biting causes erratic patterns. There could also be a water supply problem, causing pigs to queue for a drink or the water could taste horrible.

"On one monitored unit, an erratic pattern was investigated and drinking water found to be pH8, so a buffering solution was added to neutralise alkalinity," says Mr Bird.

Monitoring of water intake has also yielded information about air quality. "Using air quality sensors, a pattern emerged showing declining water consumption being correlated with reduced air pollution.

"Ventilation rates could be decreased in line with reduced water intake, achieving savings in electricity bills," adds Mr Bird.

As graphs are accessed via the Internet, vets and consultants can, with permission, use graphs to understand what is going on and direct decision-making. "When the system was first installed we spent time with our vet looking for potential problems with floor temperature and ventilation," says Mr Boston.

Video cameras were placed in nursery houses to monitor pig lying behaviours in relation to floor heating and amount of ventilation. "This helped us set heating and ventilation controls to provide the right temperature for pigs, depending on their age."

Mr Bird says one unit using the system was able to save up to £6000 a year in electricity bills by resetting ventilation and temperature controls. "Monitoring showed ventilation was being adjusted by a stockman according to outside weather conditions, even though pigs were indoors."

But Mr Boston warns producers cannot rely on understanding pig behaviour by looking at computer screens. "Technology will never replace a good stock person to assess whether animals are happy or unhappy."

Farmex are offering free trials of the monitoring technology for a year to pig producers (01189-867252). &#42

MONITORING PIGS

&#8226 Discover unknown.

&#8226 Energy savings.

&#8226 Do not replace stockman.