New insight into animals' feeding habits
CLAY CENTER, NEB.
July 15, 2013
• A new use for RFID technology
• “Sick pigs don’t always appear sick”
A new system that monitors livestock feeding behavior has been developed by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists.
Agricultural engineers Tami Brown-Brandl and Roger Eigenberg at the Agricultural Research Service’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., designed software and hardware that incorporates standard radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and a commercial reader to monitor animals' eating habits. The system, designed to work in an industry setting, includes an ear tag applied to each animal, monitoring equipment and data recording and storage.
Scientists are using this data to determine the normal day-to-day variation in feeding behavior — the amount of time each animal spends eating, the number of eating events per day, and the timing of those events. By determining an animal's normal eating behavior, it might be easier to detect a sick animal when it starts spending less time at the feeder. These animals can then be treated early to help prevent severe illness. Information gathered might also be used to improve management and establish genetic differences within a herd, according to the researchers.
The low-cost system was first used to monitor feedlot cattle and has been adapted to grow-finish swine. Individual animal feeding behavior can be measured without any outside influence, according to Ms. Brown-Brandl.
In one study, antennas were mounted on standard swine feeders in six pens that each held 40 pigs. In addition to collecting feeding behavior data, video cameras were used to evaluate the durability of the system, which was shown to be dependable.
“We can check antennas at a quick pace to determine if there is or isn’t an animal at each feeder space,” Ms. Brown-Brandl says. “This allows us to measure individual animal feeding behavior without influencing it. Once data is gathered and summarized, we can tell how much time each animal spent at the feeder.”
She says the relatively low-cost system has provided a wealth of feeding-behavior data. “We’re reading every single antenna every 20 seconds in the swine area, and we are working on ways to summarize the data into information that could prove to be very useful for producers,” she says.
The system will also provide valuable management information to aid in animal care. Scientists are working to determine the normal day-to-day variation in feeding behaviors such as time spent eating, number of eating events in a day, and timing of the events for each animal.
“If we could determine a pig’s normal eating behavior, we might be able to use this system to detect illness when a pig decreases its time spent eating,” Ms. Brown-Brandl says. “Sick pigs don’t always appear sick. If we could identify pigs as they become sick, we may be able to treat them earlier, preventing severe illness.”