Hao Gan, a biosystems engineer with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, is working to develop a system of multi-angle and multi-range cameras to monitor commercial broilers at both the individual and flock levels to help producers monitor the chickens' level of activity.
Using vision software and training, farmers should be able to generate a specific and meaningful animal-based measurement that allows them to enhance raising practices.
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The metric should also serve as a common assessment tool for food retailers and consumers seeking to support practices that enhance animal welfare.
Gan is among six recipients of a Phase I grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) SMART Broiler Initiative, which in partnership with McDonald's, is awarding more than $4 million in grants and technical support to develop automated monitoring tools that precisely assess broiler chicken welfare.
The idea is to enhance the welfare of the approximately 9 billion birds raised annually in the U.S. Increased efficiency for producers is also a goal. Current methods for assessing broiler chicken welfare on-farm rely on human observation and subjective scoring.
Our design approach is to incorporate vision software training with input from professional welfare assessors to produce an assessment system that solves the expense and labor shortages associated with current manual welfare assessments. But the system also needs to maintain the accuracy and integrity of manual assessments."
The continuous operation of the automated system would reduce the number of hours of manual labor associated with welfare assessment while increasing the monitoring of bird health and activity.
The researcher further notes that improved farmer efficiency must go hand-in-hand with enhanced animal welfare. "Consumers worldwide are justifiably concerned with food animal welfare and seek to make purchasing decisions that result in improved raising practices. A challenge in addressing this concern is the need to develop tools that quantify food animal behavior, the ultimate welfare indicator," Gan says.
Gan, and his research partners from Mississippi State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and BioRICS NV, intend for the system output to be a flock benchmark score for use by the farmer, food retailer, and ultimately the consumer. For the first time, the poultry industry and consumers may have a tool that works to improve raising practices and that provides an animal-based metric to help purchasing decisions.
The SMART Broiler Initiative is divided into two phases. Phase I provides funds for early development and testing of technologies and Phase II will refine and validate the most promising technologies from Phase I. Gan's research team received a Phase I award of $350,000, with additional contributions provided by UT AgResearch and Peco Foods, for a total of more than $513,000.