Smart monitoring of farmed pigs: state-of-play

ICT-enabled livestock farming technologies have long been on the shelves. Unlike dairy or beef farming, however, uptake in the pig industry, which represents more than half (55%) of the meat produced in the EU, has remained modest.

Precision livestock farming relies on the interplay between in situ sensors disseminated across farms and barns and data-processing algorithms providing in-depths statistics on what is going on with farmed animals. The generated information feeds into farmers’ management decisions: by benchmarking measurements against norms that specify a desired performance (e.g. in terms of health, quantity or feed consumption), smart farming equipment ring the alarm bell when things are going off rails and help livestock farmers define strategies to correct and optimize their holdings’ performance.

As for pig farming, smart farming applications range from acoustic sensors that signal higher frequencies in the coughing of pigs – a sign of respiratory infection – to more sophisticated forms of captors providing information on birthing and fertility, while feed probes enable farmers to optimize rations.

Electronic ear tags used for remote monitoring of animal behavior in the farm still make the lion’s share of precision livestock farming devices. Such systems, which work through Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), enable farmers to monitor and track a wide range of behaviors in their animals, such as drinking patterns, mating habits or distances covered. This contributes to explaining the relatively low uptake rate of smart farming in the pig industry: while sows marked for breeding barns present a strong business case for affording ICT-enabled equipment, pig farmers are still reluctant to invest in individual monitoring for animals intended for the slaughterhouse. Therefore, group monitoring of animals remains the norm in finisher herds, much like in poultry farming.

In this respect, individual monitoring of pig behavior not only brings benefits to farmers in the form of lower feed and medicine-related input costs, but also for society as a whole, as global scourges like anti-microbial resistance or zoonotic diseases are less likely to prosper when medication and feed are prepared optimally.

Yielding the full benefits of big data in pig farming: what stands in the way?

The 2017 Conference on precision livestock farming, which was held in Nantes on September 12-14, gave answers as to the reasons why pig farmers have been slow in embracing individual smart monitoring of animal behavior. Amongst others, the short obsolescence threshold for ICT-enabled technologies, the lack of data literacy in farmers, as well as the vulnerability of sensors and captors alongside animals that tend to chew on anything were identified as the main limiting factors.

Further information on the main takeaways of the 2017 Conference on precision livestock farming are available here.

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