China takes hog farming to next level

New technology that uses a combination of machine vision, voice recognition and temperature sensors is being used on hog farms in China in a bid to increase herd health and reduce mortalities.

Due to a bigger appetite for pork from China’s middle class, the country is stepping up efforts to increase its national pig herd using artificial intelligence.

China is already the world’s biggest consumer and producer of pigs. It is home to 700 million hogs, which account for half of the world’s total pig population.

However, it needs more.

Hog production in China has traditionally been carried out in backyards in small numbers. However, now there is a move to larger intensive pig production units using the latest technology and rearing techniques.

A new deal worth tens of millions of dollars has been signed between the Dekon Group, a pig farming corporation; Alibaba, China’s technology giant; and the Tequ Group, a pig feed manufacturer.

This united approach has the goal of developing and using an artificial intelligence-powered pig tracking system to replace the old method of electronic tags.

Using the eye of a machine to monitor the pigs will be much easier and efficient than using the older wireless radio frequency identification tags, which took up a lot of time and money.

These tags were fitted to each individual pig and scanned separately to track their movements and behaviour. However, expanding pig herd sizes make it too time consuming for farms to continue with this method.

“If you have ten million pigs to raise, you can barely count how many piglets were born on a daily basis when the due date comes,” said Zhang Haifeng, Tequ Group’s chief information officer.

The new machine vision technology uses overhead cameras to track pigs and identify them from tattoo marks on their backs. The basic system will be able to count pigs and piglets, but more sophisticated systems are on the way, according to Alibaba.

The partners hope to eventually be able to read temperature levels generated by pigs via infrared sensors and combine this with records of how much each pig is moving each day.

The AI system will be able to use this raw data to estimate the health of individual animals.

There are also developments coming using connected voice recognition technology which can, for example, alert farmers when piglets are being crushed by their mothers by listening for young pigs squealing. Alibaba claims this system alone will lower the death rate for piglets by three percent annually.

Voice recognition will also be used to monitor the spread of disease by recording the sounds of pigs coughing.

This latest technology is already in trial use on some of China’s biggest pig farms, but time will tell whether it will be a feasible management tool for other pig farms in the country or indeed, if it will attract attention from global farms as well.

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