Intelligent Farrowing Pen on the Way

DENMARK - For a newborn piglet, slipping from a warm and secure environment inside its mother’s womb and landing on a cool floor in a modern farrowing pen is not much fun.
calendar icon 4 July 2008
clock icon 4 minute read

It is a rather tepid start in life for a piglet that in its first few days of life is very poor at regulating body temperature. Figures from sow farms attest to this fact; on average 23 percent of piglets die before weaning.

Scientists at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Aarhus intend to do something about the problem. In collaboration with the company Skov A/S and Danish Pig Production, they will investigate if mortality can be reduced by developing an "intelligent farrowing pen".

The farrowing pen of the future may offer local climate control based on the animals’ behaviour – to the benefit of the animals’ welfare. Photo: Janne Hansen

Part of the concept of the intelligent pen includes climate control right down on the level of the individual farrowing pen. Warmth is what the little pigs really appreciate in their first few days of life.

  • Quite a few piglets die due to lack of oxygen during birth. Others are born weak or are chilled immediately post partum. Such piglets are in great risk of dying. On average, one whole pig per litter can be saved just by providing warmth immediately after birth. That alone would be a huge economical boost, says senior scientist and project leader Lene Juul Pedersen from the Department of Animal Health, Welfare and Nutrition at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences.
  • What is needed is a way to regulate heat right down on the level of the individual pen. Today climate is regulated for a whole farrowing house unit at a time. It is necessary to develop methods that build on knowledge of the animals’ behaviour. On the basis of their behaviour, when the farrowing will take place can be predicted and that can be coupled to advanced heat control so that the climate in each pen can be regulated according to the needs of the animals in it.

Activity-controlled climate

Together with Skov A/S, the scientists will develop a system whereby the condition and activity of the animals will be registered. For example, previous studies have shown that the sow is very active in the 24 hours prior to farrowing. She stands up and lies down often and spends time building a nest. This knowledge can be used to predict when she will farrow within a narrow margin.

When the system predicts when the sow is expected to farrow, a message is given to the farmer and to a climate control system that ensures that there is more heat in the pen. Not only does this save piglets. It could perhaps also save heating bills in the farrowing barn, which is usually kept at around 20° C.

  • The relatively high temperature in the room is for the sake of the piglets, but the sow would probably prefer it so be somewhat cooler, says Lene Juul Pedersen.
  • Apart from the level of activity, it would also be preferred if sensors could be developed - sensors that can measure conditions such as where in the pen the sow and her piglets are and how the sow and her piglets are doing. This would provide the farmer with important information about the well-being of the animals and if there are any problems coming on, the farmer can take action before small problems grow big.

The research project will also be investigating whether it is most practical to measure conditions using sensors, chips in the ear or video surveillance.

The four-year project is supported by Højteknologifonden with 8.3 million kroner. The total budget is 16.5 million kroner. The rest is financed by the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences with 1.7 million kroner, Skov A/S with 5.4 million kroner and Danish Pig Production with 0.1 million kroner.

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