New �459,000 research projects bring precision pig farming a stage nearer

AN initiative started in 2009 to help pig farmers improve their performance using developments in IT and monitoring expertise has come to fruition with the simultaneous launch of two major projects with a total funding of �459,000.

One project, under the Technology Strategy Board — Sustainable Protein Production (TSB-SPP) programme, aims to develop new IT tools over a three year period to automate data analysis and simplify access to it.

This is 50% sponsored by the Technology Strategy Board with the remaining funding coming from consortium partners Farmex Ltd, Dicam Technology Ltd of Halesworth, which provides advanced microprocessor-based systems for agricultural equipment, and ARM Buildings Ltd in Staffordshire.

Newcastle University will provide data analysis through its Industrial Statistics Research Unit ARM Buildings, which already provides free monitoring systems in its new buildings, will provide a stream of data from practical pig units and Tim Miller ARM’s environment specialist will act as on-farm co-ordinator. Farmex, a specialist supplier of agricultural equipment based in Reading, will be managing this project.

The other project, called PIVIT Yorkshire (Pig Improvement via Information Technology), involves 12 production sites in Yorkshire and is 50% funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the European Union through the Rural Enterprise Investment Programme. The rest of the funding is being provided by the producers involved.

Supported by BPEX, NPA and Wm Morrison Supermarkets and managed by Farmex, the aim is to find out how producers and stock-people can gain commercial advantage from remote monitoring of production sites.

The project is scheduled to take place over a two-year period with quarterly reports to a management committee. The farms and farming organisations involved are Yorkwold Pigpro, Driffield; J C Lister (Farms) Ltd, Boroughbridge; T A & J B Stephenson, York; Middlecave Ltd, Richmond and Melrose Pigs Ltd, York.

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“The objective is to focus on the people involved and find out how commercial advantage can be routinely gained from remote monitoring of production sites using existing tools and knowledge. This will be achieved by a combination of training, knowledge transfer and technical support,” said Farmex managing director Hugh Crabtree.

Over the last 10 years Farmex has been developing control and monitoring systems for piggeries and crop stores. Sensors are used to monitor vital factors, such as temperature, electricity, water and feed usage, and can transmit information to a farm’s computer for analysis on a 24-hour basis.

This gives the farmer advanced warning if something is going wrong, and work in the United States has shown that the information can be used to predict impending disease issues. UK monitoring has already seen energy savings worth thousands of pounds on many farms, says Farmex.

However, the average farm with monitoring equipment doesn’t exploit the financial and management benefits to their full potential, it says.

“Modern IT systems offer great potential to benefit animal performance and welfare by real-time data collection, timely alerts of day-to-day husbandry problems and focused reports to aid more strategic management decisions,” said Sandra Edwards, Professor of Agriculture at Newcastle University and a member of the PIVIT Initiative team.

“These two projects will allow practical systems to be further developed and their value to the pig farmer to be clearly demonstrated.

Mr Crabtree said: “The availability of broadband internet access in rural areas means that production sites can be permanently online. New software tools, which the project will develop, will allow rapid processing and feedback of digestible information to individual units.

“While there is no formal dependency between these projects, it is really exciting that we have the opportunity to run them concurrently as they are so closely related.”