Harnessing technology to optimise pig production

This is the first article in a series of six taking a detailed look at the PIVIT (Pig Improvement Via Information Technology) project. Funded by the Rural Development Programme for England, the project has been set-up to look at data collection on pig units, how remote monitoring works in practice and how data can be integrated into herd management

In 2009 an initiative was launched to encourage pig producers to explore the benefits of using remote monitoring systems and information technology. Now, four years on, the initiative, known colloquially as PIVIT (Pig Improvement Via Information Technology) has evolved into two major projects that began in 2012 and are running concurrently to the end of 2014. Both are match funded and total £459,000, with financial support secured from Defra, the EU, the Technology Strategy Board and a number of industry partners.

Inspired by farm control and ventilation specialist Farmex, PIVIT’s key objective is to demonstrate how continuous monitoring, data collection and analysis of automatically controlled production systems can be used to improve pig performance and reduce costs. A second element is to develop/simplify IT tools that can be integrated into pig production and unit management.

The first part of the initiative, the PIVIT project itself, comprises two years of on-farm investigations and involves five established pig businesses located in Yorkshire. These farms have been collecting and evaluating environmental data using Dicam controllers and Farmex’s Barn Report since January 2012.

The information is collated and presented graphically so trends for, say, temperature, ventilation rates, feed intake and water consumption can be compared against pig performance. The data also allows the producers to compare results and share experience of the system at the project’s quarterly management meetings.

The information generated provides each individual business with a constant and unique insight into the efficacy and efficiency of their own production systems; how they operate on a daily basis; where potential problems occur and how they might be pre-empted. It has become a valuable asset, and in most cases is revealing aspects about their production sites that were previously unknown.

The second element, funded under the Technology Strategy Board’s Sustainable Protein Production Programme (TSB-SPP) is geared at developing new IT tools to allow simple, automatic data analysis of the data collected via the internet. The objective is to provide a means of easy access to remote monitoring and evaluation of real and current situations at the touch of a button via PC, smartphone or tablet.

The outcome for both of these projects aims to provide the pig industry with IT solutions that can help improve performance, reduce energy consumption, cut costs and improve overall production efficiency on-farm. It will also bring new technology and equipment to the market that’s pig-industry specific, and make the collection and interpretation of environmental data easy to use.

On-site insights
“By measuring physical events, such as temperature and ventilation, feed consumption and water intake, pig producers can observe how buildings are operating 24/7; how their stock is behaving and performing in relation to the environment and where potential loss and inefficiencies are occurring,” says Farmex director Hugh Crabtree, who’s managing the PIVIT initiative.

Armed with these facts, producers can then begin to fine-tune their production systems to provide finishing pigs with an environment that allows them to optimise growth and performance. There are also significant cost benefits and energy savings associated with monitoring production systems in this way, but according to Mr Crabtree, the UK pig industry has been frustratingly slow to recognise this.

“As a business, Farmex has been very active in this area for more than 15 years,” he says. “Many US farmers were quick to see the advantages of continual environmental monitoring and as a result they have greater control of their production systems.

“But it’s a very under-utilised service in the UK, and that needs to change if we’re to become more efficient and compete globally.”

Most UK pig businesses record data, but it’s usually transactional, such as numbers born, pigs reared/sow/year, farrowing rates and so on. Producers are not so confident with continuous-flow data collection, and often find it difficult to process and manage the information produced.

“Farms will collect this kind of data, but they don’t really know what to do with it or what it’s telling them in real terms,” Mr Crabtree says.

He believes the PIVIT project will show the industry that modern IT and web-based systems can offer the right tools for the job.

“We need to develop equipment and systems that are user-friendly, that make data recording and evaluation simple and allow pig farmers to interpret the results easily. If it’s simple to use, it will get used, and if it then saves money it will become essential,” he adds.

Fact-based decisions
Few pig farms will measure water intake, ventilation rate, temperature and feed intake on a daily basis, so there’s no definitive record of how the production system or pigs are performing within each building. They don’t know what’s ‘the norm’ so therefore can’t determine what’s unusual.

In essence, if you provide pigs with the correct environment they’ll grow well and efficiently. However, not many farms achieve optimal environmental conditions throughout the entire production period because stockmen and managers rarely know how their buildings are operating. They don’t monitor inputs – or outputs – so there’s little indication if loss occurs or where savings can be made.

When buildings are monitored every day, with frequent measurements recorded during a 24-hour period, then you can establish what’s occurring in real-time. This is often very different from what is perceived to be happening.

“You have to measure what you do to identify where improvements can be made and/or losses reduced,” Mr Crabtree says, “but unfortunately, when you start to monitor pig production systems, the data usually reveals a fairly negative situation.”

Even so, careful analysis will indicate how improvements can be made to reduce costs and achieve targets. By continually monitoring a situation, producers do soon realise that this data has economic significance – it does help increase efficiency.

“My late colleague Nick Bird had a succinct and steadfast philosophy: know what you do, then do it 10% or more better, then you will progress,” Mr Crabtree adds. “This is true, but you have to know where you are in the first place to get better, so you must take measurements.”

Observing pigs’ activity and behaviour visually will tell a stockman if they’re comfortable or not, but would he/she really know what’s happening in terms of energy consumption and feed efficiency? Are the pigs performing as well as they could be or are they being continually compromised by more subtle environmental factors.

These issues are what PIVIT aims to address. It’s a platform to encourage pig farmers to embrace environmental monitoring and learn how it can be used in a practical way to optimise pig performance. This is what’s happening on the farms that are involved in the project; they’re beginning to see benefits to productivity and within their management routines.

The project has also shown that training is integral and vitally important. Farm staff must have confidence in a monitoring system as the data collected will inevitably highlight inaccuracies that are usually linked to stockmanship and human responsibilities/interactions. Stockmen and managers must be assured that the ‘eye in the sty’ is not there to pick up faults; it’s a tool to help improve their own management skills and help achieve targets.

“Once the merits of a reporting system such as Barn Report are seen first-hand, then monitoring is usually valued by personnel,” Mr Crabtree says. “This is what we’ve found in the US, and why it’s proved so successful.”

Continuous monitoring of the pigs’ environment, coupled with data analysis, offers the UK pig industry a massive incentive to improve pig performance, business efficiency and sustainability. Initial results from PIVIT farms show that there are considerable advantages to be gained in terms of productivity, improved management, reduced energy consumption and cost control. Areas that could significantly increase the UK industry’s competitive edge and its green credentials.

The data collected by the PIVIT project (now totalling some 70 million records) is freely available to any research institute that wants it – contact Hugh Crabtree (hugh@farmex.com) for more information.

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