Research by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Animal Welfare Programme have discovered a small-scale camera and computer set-up that is poised to improve the welfare of farm animals, in particular, broiler chickens.
The welfare of broiler chicken flocks is often assessed by examining the health of the birds’ feet and legs at the point of slaughter. The alternative is to have teams of people go into poultry sheds and assess how well the birds are walking and moving around, eventually calculating a so-called “gait score,” said Lead researcher Professor Marian Dawkins, University of Oxford.
“Waiting until the birds are slaughtered is obviously not an ideal way of monitoring animal welfare on farms and the gait score method is rather labour intensive and expensive for an industry that is already hard pressed by cheap imports. Our invention correlates well with the gait score method and is at least as sensitive at picking up the very early warning signs that something is wrong. It has the potential to become totally automated to raise an alarm when a problem is detected,” Professor Dawkins added.
A small box mounted on the wall in a chicken shed contains a camera and computer that can use a technique called “optical flow” to monitor the shifting patterns of movement in the flock. If there are a lot of slow-moving birds the overall pattern of movement is disrupted and the monitoring device detects that there may be a welfare issue such as illness or lameness in a proportion of the birds.
“Ill or injured birds disrupt the flow of movement and our camera set-up can detect that disruption and alert us quickly to any problems in the flock,” concludes Professor Dawkins.
Professor Dawkins and her team are now working to test the system further and so develop it as an important management and welfare managing tool.