Smart poultry innovations offer new insights

27-07-2018 | | |
Smart poultry innovations offer new insights. Photo: Koos Groenewold
Smart poultry innovations offer new insights. Photo: Koos Groenewold

While there’s no replacement for good stockmanship, robotics, automation, Big Data and other innovations are playing an ever-increasing role in successful poultry production. This trend was highlighted during the Poultry World seminar in conjunction with VIV Europe and the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) in the Netherlands

The Poultry World, Proagrica smart farming seminar took a deeper look at smart nutritional strategies, and offered new insight into management and how farmers can use big data to improve poultry production.

Smart nutrition

Globally, poultry producers face many health challenges. To offset some of those challenges and to improve performance you need to have a good programme, said Daniel Ramirez of Nutriad, Belgium. It is his belief that a strong programme starts with good genetics, and is followed by a clear management strategy that puts emphasis on health and nutrition. Today, explained Ramirez, with antibiotic reduction at the forefront, producers must first focus on decreasing risk and improving health status first. He suggests taking a holistic approach that improves gut health through the use of probiotics. Birds with an effective immune status, he said, will be capable of better responding to stressors later.

Data, sensors and robotics

Using advanced technology that is aimed at automatic, real-time monitoring of animal welfare, health, environmental impact and production parameters, smart farmers aim to reduce labour and the use of resources, while improving animal welfare. Lenny van Erp of HAS Den Bosch in the Netherlands, highlighted examples of smart technologies that improve production from around the world. In the UK, for example, a company called provides surveillance cameras that can be used to monitor chickens in the barn. Farmers are finding value in both optical and thermal surveillance technology, as it allows them to study behaviour and make adjustments to environmental and management systems that improve both performance and welfare, said Mr van Erp. Sound is also interesting to measure in poultry, Mr van Erp continued. “Most animals vocalise and that means something,” she said, pointing out that better performing birds make less noise. Different types of robots can be used as a platform for multiple sensors to get around the poultry house.

Smart lighting

Like humans, poultry need a proper day-night cycle. When birds have a regular day/night schedule they develop the proper diurnal rhythms, which are important for functions, like melatonin production. Research shows that providing a proper cycle can help improve health and immune status, mobility and alertness.

Steven Mitchell, marketing manager at Greengage UK, gave a talk on the importance of lighting design. Using a digital control panel, farmers can set up sophisticated light cycles, including those that mimic natural day-night cycles, said Mr Mitchell. Company research, he said, shows that under the right settings, birds exhibit healthy perching behaviour that leads to a reduction in floor eggs. Lighting design is also crucial for keeping birds evenly spread to avoid issues like piling and smothering. Company evidence suggests that using Greengage lighting systems can also increase broiler weight, said Mr Mitchell. “From trials we had, the metric is that what you get for a bird of an average weight of 2.75kg kill weight – you get an increase of just under € 0.09 per bird,” he said. “If you do the math on that, that could turn out to be a significant amount of money.”

Interaction between the speakers and the audience of the Poultry World symposium brought the discussion on smart farming to another level. Photo: Koos Groenewold

Interaction between the speakers and the audience of the Poultry World symposium brought the discussion on smart farming to another level. Photo: Koos Groenewold

Bringing it all together

Today’s poultry farmers do not have it easy. Birds reach kill weight quicker, and globally speaking, financial margins are tighter. Animal welfare and animal health are key concerns, but difficult to explain to consumers. Labour shortages also present issues, and farmers don’t want to work 7 days a week, sacrificing everything for the farm. The special poultry session’s fourth and final speaker of the day, David Speller, owner of Applied Group in the UK, addressed this issue, pointing to technology as the solution to some of these problems. On his farm, Mr Speller monitors water usage, odour changes in the barn, and flock behavioural change as a result of lighting programs. He even uses the ChickenBoy robot mentioned earlier by Lenny van Erp. “My business is becoming a living laboratory for me to find my own answers,” he said.

Embracing the future means assisting farmers in the task of data analysis, explained Mr Speller. “Not every farmer has the skills to control some of these modern systems,” he said. “We’ve got to do this in a smart way and accept that we can’t do everything ourselves. Embrace opportunities that are out there.”

OPTIfarm offers a 24-hour, 7 days a week support service that extracts and analyses knowledge from the farm, and turns an alarm system into something actionable. “We know problems before they happen because we’re pulling all this information together,” he continued. “We use all of the technical abilities of the equipment because we’ve got specialists on the end of the line making that happen.” “We can now start to demonstrate welfare standards because we’ve got more information and more knowledge,” he continued. “And we’re using commercial trials on our farms and lowering risks. Our insurance company gives us discounts for that, so we’re saving money on that as well.”

While there is no replacement for good stockmanship, if used properly, robotics, automation and Big Data do have the potential to vastly improve health, safety and welfare in poultry production. The tricky part is choosing the right technology for each specific problem, and being able to analyse the results in a way that provides actionable results, not piles of confusing data.

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Melanie Epp Freelance agricultural journalist from Ontario, Canada