SCIENTISTS at the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., have developed a new system to monitor the feeding behavior of feedlot cattle and grow/finish swine.
The system measures how much time animals spend eating. The scientists hope this will eventually be used to effectively identify sick livestock, improve management and establish genetic differences within a herd.
According the July Agricultural Research Magazine, the system, created by ARS agricultural engineers Tami Brown-Brandl and Roger Eigenberg in the center's Environmental Management Research Unit, uses standard radio-frequency identification technology designed around a commercial reader. The technology includes an ear tag that is applied to each animal, monitoring equipment at the feeders and data recording and storage.
Eigenberg designed the hardware for the system. Instead of a single unit that connects to a single antenna, the system uses a "multiplexer," which functions as multiple switches that serve to connect the signal from the reader to the correct antenna. The software, designed by Brown-Brandl, controls the hardware, timing and data recording and storage.
"We can check antennas at a quick pace to determine if there is or isn't an animal at each feeder space," Brown-Brandl said. "This allows us to measure individual animal feeding behavior without influencing it. Once data are gathered and summarized, we can tell how much time each animal spent at the feeder."
The system was originally designed for cattle and has been adapted to grow/finish swine. Antennas are encased in a PVC panel mounted on the front face of the standard swine feeders in six pens, each holding 40 pigs. Both systems were evaluated using video cameras and proved to be rugged and reliable.
"The relatively low-cost system has provided a wealth of feeding behavior data," Brown-Brandl said. "We're reading every single antenna every 20 seconds in the swine area, and we are working on ways to summarize the data into information that could prove to be very useful for producers."
ARS said the system will also provide valuable management information to aid in animal care. Scientists are working to determine the normal day-to-day variation in feeding behavior: the time spent eating, number of eating events in a day and timing of the events for each animal.
"If we could determine a pig's normal eating behavior, we might be able to use this system to detect illness when a pig decreases its time spent eating," Brown-Brandl said. "Sick pigs don't always appear sick. If we could identify pigs as they become sick, we may be able to treat them earlier, preventing severe illness."
Scientists are using the monitoring system's data to examine feeding behavior as it relates to age, gender, weight gain and the health of the animals. Eventually, they plan to determine the number of feeder spaces needed in each pen and whether additional feeder spaces would result in a more equal distribution of pig weights across the pen.
Swine herd over 50 years
A group of researchers from several land-grant universities recently presented the results of a 50-year swine herd comparison study at the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Animal Science and American Dairy Science Assn. held in Indianapolis, Ind.
The study used cradle-to-gate life-cycle assessments to compare the environmental impact and resource use of U.S. swine production from 1959 to 2009. The functional unit was 1 kg of hot dressed carcass weight (HDCW). Boundaries were from crop sowing to market-ready hogs at the farm gate.
In the study, a process-based deterministic model tracked yearlong pig flow through swine production. The age-sex subclass census was adjusted to account for mortality and live hog import/export.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the 1959 agricultural census provided hog demographics, crop statistics, irrigation and crop inputs. Hog management data were taken from the 2006 National Animal Health Monitoring System swine reports, National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Swine 10th edition and 2011 "National Life Cycle Carbon Footprint Study for U.S. Swine." Emission factors came from the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers and Ecovent.
Annual feed requirements were estimated using era-typical diets. Water intake and manure excretion were estimated. Cropland requirements were estimated using yield and input data for pesticides, energy use and irrigation. Land use was discounted for byproduct feeds.
Emission factors were obtained for hog production, cadaver disposal, cropping, feed processing and transport, manure handling and energy use. The prediction of live hogs to market was within +0.1% of the actual. The 2009 carbon emissions, measured in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), were within 10% of the livestock portion of the swine life-cycle report and fell within a 95% confidence interval.
Over the 50-year period, the study found that marketed hogs increased from 87.6 million to 112.6 million from a 39% smaller breeding herd. HDCW yield increased from 5.49 million metric tons to 10.34 mmt, an increase of 1,012 kg of HDCW harvested per sow-year. Total feed increased 25%, resulting in whole-population feed conversion improving from 6.6 kg of feed per kilogram of HDCW to 4.4 kg/kg.
The researchers also found that added gains in crop yields and byproduct feed use led to a 59% decrease of land required, resulting in a 78% decrease in land per kilogram of HDCW.
Annual animal water consumption increased from 123.6 billion liters to 137.1 billion. However, water consumption decreased from 22.5 liters per kilogram of HDCW to 13.3 liters. Carbon emissions increased from 45.7 mmt to 56.1 mmt, while kilograms of CO2e per kilogram of HDCW declined 35%, from 8.3 kg/CO2e to 5.4 kg.
Animal rescue, care
The Houston (Texas) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) have partnered to create a new program that will expose veterinary students to cases of animal cruelty, neglect and trauma involving dogs, cats and other companion animals, horses, donkeys, farm animals, exotic animals and native wildlife.
The partnership is considered the largest in the U.S. between an animal shelter and a veterinary school to go beyond the scope of the typical treatment and care of cats and dogs.
Fourth-year students from the Texas A&M CVMBS will rotate through a required two-week program at the Houston SPCA, where they will work alongside experts in cases of animal cruelty, neglect and trauma.
The program seeks to help future veterinarians become more knowledgeable about the full spectrum of shelter medicine and animal welfare, including rescue and forensics investigations for all species.
"There's no better way to gain immersive, hands-on experience than at a shelter such as the Houston SPCA, which sees over 26,000 animals per year," said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, dean of the Texas A&M CVMBS, the only veterinary college in the state of Texas. "We have a responsibility to provide a dynamic and engaging learning environment for our students that challenges them to perform at their very best and prepares them to be career ready at graduation."
Dr. Kenita Rogers, associate dean for professional programs, believes this partnership will be a model for veterinary medical education and for academic/private endeavors that provide a true investment in the future of the veterinary profession.
Rogers said students will not only be exposed to a large, complicated and medically challenging caseload, but they will also gain experiences that cannot be mimicked in other settings, namely exposure to animal cruelty investigations and the principles of high-volume, high-quality shelter medicine.
"The students are fully integrated into the operations of the Houston SPCA and are surrounded by contemporary, 'real-life' examples of how and why veterinarians must be involved in animal welfare issues," Rogers added.
The program is partially funded by PetSmart Charities Inc., a nonprofit animal welfare organization that helps find homes for more than 400,000 dogs and cats every year through its adoption program in PetSmart stores and its signature adoption events.