Huge strides have been made in the design and construction quality of pig buildings over the past few decades. Efficient insulation and well-controlled ventilation has led to vast improvements in the environment in which pigs are reared. Easy-to-clean surfaces have enhanced hygiene while new equipment has reduced labour requirements to levels unimaginable a few years ago.

However, the operator has proved to be the limiting factor as to how well buildings – old or new –work in practice. It’s been discovered that identical buildings on different farms perform differently, even where the same feed and genetics are used.

Recognising this, a UK company, Farmex, has developed a system for monitoring buildings that has had some striking spin-offs in terms of pig performance, pig health, welfare and energy-saving, and housing specialist, ARM Buildings, is now supplying the system as standard with all its new buildings.

Maintaining the boost

This system helps during commissioning because some problems cannot be picked up without looking at data from several days, to see trends and any anomalies. The main driver is to ensure that buildings keep working to their potential for the whole life of the building.

“Some of the ‘new building performance boost’ which everyone talks about can be maintained for much longer periods,” says Mike McLaughlin ARM’s managing director.

So what does this system do and how does it work? A good analogy is the introduction of computer diagnostics in cars. It can alert producers to problems in the running of their piggeries and also diagnose them. These are not necessarily the same as the ones reported! It has become clear that even brand new buildings can be ‘driven’ badly. Stockmen tend to fiddle with controls!

Key to the system is a series of sensors set in strategic positions in the piggery. Temperature, feed and water supply can be monitored and this information is fed into the farm’s computer on a more-or-less a continuous basis. This highlights trends and faults and provides comparative information in readily-understood graphs.

A restriction on pig buildings has always been the expense of wiring for such sophisticated systems. But this is not the case with a new, prefabricated building where this can be incorporated during manufacture. Due to their construction and location, existing farm buildings are notoriously difficult to wire back to the farm office but a Farmex researcher has recently developed a unique wireless system to overcome this.

Importantly, the system can be used to alert operators if there is a serious problem or an emergency – such as a ventilation breakdown – by paging staff in a pre-arranged sequence, on their mobile phones, throughout the day or night. This can bring significant welfare benefits to the livestock.

Due to the potential of the system to improve efficiency of production as well as reducing costs and saving energy, the company has been behind a new initiative – Pig Improvement Via Information Technology (PIVIT), which involves academics, industry organisations, and commercial companies. It is currently making a submission of evidence to the House of Lords to help with UK decisions on future R&D funding.

In the field

But how well does it really work on the farm? The company has built up a number of examples. In the US, which has been quick to see the advantages of such a system, a large-scale integrated pig enterprise used it to monitor water consumption. This highlighted the cost of water wastage and it was found that a slow drip from a single drinker could cost $16-$20, a ‘regular drip’ cost $32-$40 while a ‘dribble’ cost a massive $200-$400 annually.

What was not expected was the health spin-off. On this unit, which finished over 100,000 pigs a year, it was found that a 10-15% decline in water consumption occurred every time before an outbreak of swine flu. This enabled a treatment regime to be instigated in advance of the problem and saved $20,000 a year through lowered mortality, reduced medication costs and improved performance.

Monitoring feed augers showed up some surprising results. The obvious situation, where feed flow stops, is fairly straightforward. This can occur if the feed hopper runs out, ‘bridging’ occurs in the bin, there is blockage or the auger itself breaks down. Research by the company suggested that faulty augers and feeding systems could be costing the UK pig industry alone between £10 million ($16 million) and £50 million a year.

What was less obvious was the difference in performance between separate augers. Monitoring equipment was installed on a farm having a relatively efficient twin-bin set-up with a single auger servicing a finishing house. It was using 2-3% more electricity than necessary, amounting to about 910 units and costing around £500 over a typical ten-year life. The extra running time could also be expected to increase general wear-and-tear reducing the life of the equipment by 20%.

The equipment was monitored over a one-month period – during which time the augers ran seven times a day – and the information gathered was analysed.

The system appeared to deliver feed in a consistent and reliable fashion, but the data showed that the auger appeared to draw much more readily from one bin than another. It was concluded that there could be something specifically wrong with these augers or bins, such as the slides not opening properly. Or it might be an inherent problem with the particular arrangement.

But it is on the energy side where the really big savings are coming. It is self-evident that this is particularly true in areas where supplementary heat is provided.

Monitoring showed that a pig unit in East Anglia, one of England’s principal pig producing areas, saved nearly £3,000 per year on 60 farrowing pens through accurate control of electricity use in its heated creep areas. An additional bonus was that the piglets were about 500g (l lb) heavier when weaned at four weeks.

This was achieved by putting plastic curtains around the creep areas, which were heated by 175W infra-red lamps. These were controlled by the Dicam (Digital Interactive Control and Monitoring) system which allowed the piglets to be started off at 30 deg C after birth, followed by a pre-planned temperature reduction curve on a daily basis.

Electric meters were fitted to two houses and were read via the monitoring system. By using curtains to prevent heat ‘leaking’ it was found that energy costs on this unit were reduced by about £1 per crate per week. In addition, because the rest of the farrowing house was cooler, sow feed intake was higher, which was thought to account, in part, for the increased weaning weight.

With increasing emphasis on green issues, a bonus was that the saving in carbon emissions was put at over 60 tonnes per year.

Farmex director Nick Bird estimated that, nationally, there was potential for the UK industry to save 27 GigaWatt Hours of electricity, worth £2.4 million annually in creep heating alone.

While these figures are impressive, the major benefits of monitoring come through ensuring that the environment in a building is at the optimum day-in, day-out. This is not simply temperature control, but air-changes as well as the provision of feed and water. This helps ensure that pigs can perform nearer to their genetic potential. In particular, it has to be remembered that small improvements in feed conversion and growth rates in finishing pigs have a big influence on economics!