A Newcastle University study is using the way a pig walks to help determine whether it could be prone to lameness later in life, according to researchers.

Using video motion capture, researchers at the UK-based university measured changes in the pigs’ gait, focusing on the angle of the joints and length of stride. By assessing what constitutes a "normal" gait in pigs, the team determined how the system could be used to reduce lameness, improving health and welfare on farms, reducing costs and improving sustainability. “Lameness among livestock is a major problem for farmers,” said Ph.D. student Sophia Stavrakakis. “Female breeding pigs are particularly prone to leg problems and this makes it costly for farmers when an animal becomes lame because of the time and money invested in the breeding stock. Using biomechanical motion capture we are able to measure the animals’ gait — tracking a number of animals to find the right angulation and locomotion. Through this we hope to be able to develop a farmer-friendly system that will allow them to identify those pigs with better legs, a trait that can be passed on to subsequent generations.”

As part of the study, the pigs were trained to walk along a runway. Once the pigs had learned to walk at the right speed, the researchers attached reflective markers at key points on the pigs' legs and used motion-capture cameras to track their movements and identify those parameters which can indicate a good pig. The results provided an initial benchmark against which other pigs can be assessed. “Making sure the pigs all walked at the same pace was crucial, because otherwise you can’t accurately compare leg movement and angles,” said Dr. Jonathan Guy, a lecturer in animal science and project supervisor.

The aim now, according to Stavrakakis, will be to adapt the system so it can be used on farms to improve pig welfare. “The work is still in its early stages, but the aim is to use our research to make a real difference to both pig farmers and their animals,” said Stavrakakis. “Using CCTV-style cameras placed strategically on the farm so that every pig walks past and is captured on camera would be a simple, non-invasive way of collating key data about each pig and identifying those animals which are least likely to suffer problems in the future.”