Precision farming and the poultry sector

Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) has yet to become a widespread commercial reality in the poultry sector despite increasing research output, according to a new report.

While the development of PLF systems for poultry farming, particularly broilers and laying hens, has received increasing attention on a global scale, notably in the United States, China and Belgium, through studies focusing on improving bird health and welfare, it has yet to focus on commercialisation.

While the obstacles affect other sectors, it appears that PLF in the poultry arena is lagging behind other species, such as dairy cattle. Photo: Dreamstime
While the obstacles affect other sectors, it appears that PLF in the poultry arena is lagging behind other species, such as dairy cattle. Photo: Dreamstime

The literature review report, “A systematic review of Precision Livestock Farming in the Poultry Sector: Is technology focussed on improving bird welfare,” looked at 264 peer-reviewed publications and conference proceedings.

It found that PLF development has most commonly focused on broiler farming, followed by laying hens, and mainly involves the use of sensors (environmental and wearable) (51.89%) and cameras (42.42%) followed by the use of microphones (14.02%). Almost all papers (96.21%) described prototype systems, suggesting there were very few commercially systems available. The commercially available technologies were the eYeNamic Camera systems, and environmental sensors to measure temperature, ambient dust, relative humidity, vibration, ammonia concentration, carbon dioxide concentration and a thickness and crack sensor for eggs.

Why is there a lack of commercial PLF systems?

The reason for the lack of commercial PLF systems could be, according to some studies, that research does not involve manufacturing companies from the start. Few systems undergo trials under commercial conditions and there is sometimes incomplete development of technology, especially when equipment shows poor robustness or reliability. This coupled with the uncertain payback period for farmers investing capital in PLF, is affecting the industry.

Poultry use of PLF lags behind other species

While the obstacles affect other sectors, it appears that PLF in the poultry arena is lagging behind other species, such as dairy cattle. Commercially available PLF technology in the dairy sector includes devices to identify, track and milk individual animals, feed animals automatically and obtain diagnostic data about a range of health and performance issues

More publications had animal health and welfare (63.64%) than production (51.14%) as one of the goals. Likewise, for the publications with only one goal, more publications had animal health and welfare as the only goal (39.77%) compared to production (27.27%).

Of the papers with animal health and welfare as the sole primary goal, most of the measurements used to monitor the birds were:

• locomotory behaviour-based (43.81%),

• vocalisations or bird sounds (20.95%).

• perching behaviour

• resting behaviour

• latency to lie down were also studied.

PLF: Poultry welfare

The literature review found that PLF technology may offer more objective measures of welfare than traditional assessment methods carried out by human observers, providing real data to the otherwise subjective discussion process. PLF allows modern, large-scale farms to replicate and even to improve on the benefits of caring farmers who know their animals, transferred to a larger scale. This could be done via closer monitoring than farmers can provide to even a few animals, as well as integration of data via decision algorithms.

Welfare advocates’ concerns about PLF systems

However, this has led to concern among animal welfare advocates that PLF systems, in aiding the management of intensive farming systems, may entrench the use of such systems that have limited potential for achieving good animal welfare issues. On the other hand, some scientists have argued that PLF technologies can serve to highlight the welfare issues of poor systems and inform evidence-based strategies for their improvement. Others have said PLF use in the broiler sector can only be part of a solution to improve welfare, alongside for example, using slower growing strains, reducing stocking density and increasing the dark period length in houses.

The review said that while the potential for welfare had been substantially discussed, it remained unclear as to whether improving bird welfare had been the goal or if the focus had been on improving production efficiency.

There is a need for future work around overcoming barriers to commercialisation and on expanding the range of welfare measures, particularly those involving behaviour, that can be used as part of PLF. And there is a need for more large-scale commercial trials that involve manufacturing companies, farmers and other stakeholders from the outset.

The study was led by Elizabeth Rowe and Marian Stamp Dawkins of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and Sabine Gebhardt-Henrich from the University of Bern’s Centre for Proper Housing: Poultry and Rabbits.