Emerging technologies at AASV: three cool tools headed to hog farms

Here’s an overview of three intriguing technologies spotlighted at the 2019 American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual meeting.
calendar icon 17 May 2019
clock icon 5 minute read

The so-called Internet of Things - that emerging world in which everyday tools like thermostats and doorbells suddenly become indispensable smart devices - is not lost on the pork industry. In fact, producers and veterinarians are staying abreast of new technologies and incorporating them when they’re viable and cost-effective.

Real-time management

As the demand for protein grows and operations become larger to meet that demand, visual evaluation of individual animals becomes more difficult and time-consuming. Continuous, real-time monitoring of animals can create measurable value for farmers by identifying feed or water outages, behavioural issues or health problems more quickly.

Daniel Berckmans, PhD, professor in the Department of Biosystems at KU Leuven in Belgium, said health challenges and other production issues can be identified more quickly with the use of visual images and sound monitors.

“We want real-time management based on the response of the animal,” he said. “It’s not just about machine-to-machine communication; it’s about living organisms interacting with machines. We measure the response of humans, plants and animals - not just for monitoring but for active controls.”

Here are some of the studies in which he’s been involved:

  • Real-time sound analysis of pigs: A machine captures 22,000 samples per second, or 6.6 million samples in a day. One number is sent to the owner every five minutes (to minimise Internet capacity). If pigs are coughing frequently, the farmer knows treatment is needed.
  • Sound analysis of chickens eating feed: This measures the pecking sound to see how often each individual broiler is eating.
  • Visual monitor of pigs’ water usage as a way to measure health: The camera zooms in when a pig uses the drinking nipple and measures the duration of the visit. Berckmans said the margin of error was 200 ml over 13 days, for a 92 percent accuracy rate. A real-time image was captured each second, for 43,000 images per day per pen. One number was sent to the farmer every 30 minutes.
  • Visual monitors of dairy cows for lameness: Each cow was individually identified as she walked to the robotic milking machine.

“It’s not about the data; it’s about relevant information,” Berckmans said. “That’s where the value is.”

The brave new world of cyber-physical systems (described as systems that comprise interacting digital, analoueg, physical and human components) will be technology- and value-driven, and it will fundamentally change how people do business, within agriculture and in general.

“It’s not about one technology versus another,” Berckmans pointed out. “It’s about collaboration and creating value for the farmer and other stakeholders.”


Telemedicine (also referred to as “telehealth” or “e-health”) allows health-care professionals to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients in remote locations using telecommunications technology. It’s already seeing widespread use in human health, but could it work in some instances for swine herds as well?

No one doubts its potential, particularly as swine farms become more specialised and continue to expand. It’s not without controversy or roadblocks, however. Guidelines vary from state to state, said Beth Thompson, JD, DVM, Minnesota state veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. She noted that “regulators do need to be involved in the conversation.”

Large systems often have multiple sites in multiple states, and each state has its own laws and policies related to telemedicine. For telemedicine to work, Thompson said the veterinarian would have to be licensed or under the authority of the licensing agency where the patient is located, and provide the evaluation and treatment of the patient to establish the veterinary-client-patient relationship. Demonstrating continuity of care and records would also be essential. As with on-farm visits, prescriptions would be at the discretion of the veterinarian and regulated by local laws and standards. It may mean that telemedicine serves more of a consulting role, but even that will be beneficial when dealing with local or foreign animal diseases.

“With [concern surrounding] African swine fever…, it’s even more important that everyone communicates well,” Thompson said.

Surveillance cameras

Surveillance cameras and remote video auditing are being used on some farms as a way to ensure compliance with biosecurity and welfare protocols. Jay Miller, DVM, director of health and animal care at The Maschhoffs, said the cameras capture data, but the data (video) by itself does not change behaviours.

The company uses cameras in areas where humans interact with the pigs: loading chutes, hallways, employee entries/exits, etc.

“We have complex tasks that rely heavily on human behaviour,” Miller said. “Other industries have similar challenges, like hand-washing compliance in hospitals. We copy some of these behaviours into our system. The surveillance system helps us learn how to correct behaviour.”

He explained the technology is a tool that “significantly enhances awareness, transparency and accountability of employees; raises compliance and improves competence; and allows the coach (farm manager) to position the team to win through coaching, training and accountability to improve performance. These new employees will learn a lot better this way than the way we learned.”

Miller said the hardware costs $5,000 to $10,000, and the third-party auditing costs $250 to $1,500 per site per month.

Improvements in compliance, which Miller said were significant (82 percent), are a result of setting clear expectations. The Maschhoffs hope to add remote video auditing to 10 additional breed-to-wean farms and have 100 percent of their company-owned market loads recorded.

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