Automatic equipment to detect on-heat sows has become relatively common as an option in loose housing, but it is still a rarity where the weaned sow is held in a single-place stall. Some Italian friends involved in pig production have set out to change that by inventing, and now patenting, a system to use in stall accommodation.
Marco Lunati and Luigi Gesi are from the same village in the Lodi district of northern Italy. Marco runs a 600-sow unit and Luigi works with computers and software. When Marco was having problems achieving an acceptable farrowing index for his herd, he brought in Luigi's knowledge of computing to assist the search for a solution.
Together they have produced an electronic form of heat detector that is installed on Marco's farm and has been launched commercially under the brand name of Spy Pig. As this name suggests, it is essentially a system of observation. It watches for tell-tale changes in the sow's behaviour and movement that signal the start of her oestrus.
To develop the supporting automation, Luigi Gesi recorded the movements of 1000 sows using cameras mounted on the sow stalls and built the results into a software program for analysing the relationship between behavioural changes and heat onset. Checking this afterwards against human observations showed that it was 95% accurate. The next step was to devise a monitoring unit which could be fixed on the stall, over the sow's back.
The monitor produced by the Italian partners incorporates a motion sensor that works by sending out an infra-red beam. Return readings are converted by the software on the farm's computer into a schematic with a cartoon-style representation of all the sows and indicators according to their breeding status. This then gives the herd manager the information for scheduling inseminations correctly.
In addition, the monitoring unit itself has a row of lights in different colours. The red light in the series illuminates when the sow is judged to have started oestrus. After her next behavioural change confirms that she has been inseminated, this is shown by the green light on the panel. Other lights refer to the sow's state of well-being.
"We wanted a method that would give indications to the person in the sow house as well as on the PC," says Marco. "For us, the big advantage of the system is that it provides constant surveillance for 24 hours daily instead of the usual routine in herds of checking heat manually 2-3 times per day. It can be used instead of having manual checks or to complement them. Another important point is that it is non-invasive. In our herd we have monitoring units in 120 of the sow places at a cost of about €150 each, including the supporting Windows software. The payback comes from the extra fecundity achieved by inseminating sows at the right time and from avoiding the cost of empty days." Farm reporting by Stuart Lumb PIGI