The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) announced the six Phase I winners of the SMART Broiler initiative, which is awarding more than $4 million in grants and technical support to develop automated monitoring tools that precisely assess broiler chicken welfare.
The Phase I winners collectively received $2.092 million in funding from FFAR and McDonald’s, with the potential to receive additional funding in Phase II.
“McDonald’s is proud to work with FFAR to fund innovative on-farm technologies to measure and improve broiler welfare,” McDonald’s Corp. vice president of sustainability Keith Kenny said. “These technologies have huge potential to improve the welfare of chickens in our supply chains all over the world. We believe the Phase I winners to be industry leading, and we are excited to see the evolution of this research.”
Current methods for assessing broiler chicken welfare on farm rely on human observation and subjective scoring, FFAR said, while SMART Broiler is developing automated "sensors, monitoring, analysis and reporting technologies" (SMART) to objectively and comprehensively assess broiler welfare worldwide. These tools have the potential to enhance the welfare of 9 billion birds annually in the U.S. and improve efficiency for producers.
“FFAR is impressed by the caliber of the more than 40 SMART Broiler proposals we received from 11 countries, which underscores the global importance of this issue,” FFAR executive director Dr. Sally Rockey said. “Producers and consumers alike are eager to address animal welfare concerns. This initiative seeks to remedy these concerns by developing technologies that provide consistent, timely and accurate welfare assessments on farms around the world.”
This initiative is divided into two phases. Phase I provides funds for early development and testing of technologies. Phase II refines and validates the most promising technologies from Phase I. FFAR said it anticipates granting additional awards for Phase II, which will likely be announced in late 2021.
These are the six SMART Broiler Phase I winners:
1. Marian Dawkins with the University of Oxford, in partnership with Munters and Tyson Foods, is receiving $232,063 to test the ability of a novel camera/computer system called OpticFlock to monitor broiler chicken welfare.
Cameras inside chicken houses monitor bird behavior and deliver a "verdict" every 15 minutes to alert producers to early signs of broiler welfare issues, like foot pad lesions and lameness. Munters will help develop the technology so it can be commercialized as a stand-alone unit and as part of existing environmental monitoring technologies. By combining other environmental data factors, researchers intend to improve the quality of life for farmers and birds.
2. Niamh O’Connell with Queen’s University Belfast, in partnership with Moy Park, is receiving $310,738 to develop a vision-based system that leverages existing human crowd surveillance algorithms and applies them to the tracking and behavior analysis of broiler chickens. This will enable researchers to monitor large numbers of birds and track individual activity patterns, including welfare indicators such as gait score and feather cleanliness, in addition to natural behavior.
3. Ingrid de Jong with Wageningen University & Research (WUR), along with collaborators at Utrecht University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Virginia Tech, is receiving $500,000 -- with additional support provided by Plukon Food Group, CLK GmbH and Utrecht University, for a total award of $610,000 -- to use an affordable, camera-based system and artificial intelligence that automatically records broiler chicken behavior on the farm. The two- and three-dimensional cameras will continuously monitor broilers’ ability to walk, interact with each other and the environment and other natural behaviors such as running, playing, foraging and dust bathing.
“We are researching whether we can continuously monitor and interpret the behavior of broiler chickens with 3D infrared cameras and, of course, if we’ll be able to automatically alert the farmer where necessary," de Jong said in an announcement from WUR. "Filming animals is easy. Developing a system that analyzes those images: That’s the challenge, especially if you want to monitor animal behavior in large groups. How do the chicks run, walk and play? How do they treat each other and their environment?”
The ultimate goal is a simple and affordable system that supports poultry farmers in enhancing animal welfare on their farm, WUR said. For example, because they receive a signal when problems threaten to arise in a group of broilers, this allows producers to intervene at an early stage.
De Jong added, “Large, expensive and complicated systems are often set up for these projects. A lot of energy is subsequently put in compressing these systems to make them applicable. For us, the simplicity and affordability of the system is the precondition. So, we start exactly the other way around.”
4. Lasse Lorenzen with Scio+, Big Dutchman AG and SKOV A/S, with collaborators at KU Leuven, Purdue University and Aarhus University, is receiving $499,649, with additional support provided by Scio+ for a total award of more than $1 million. The project is using camera technology and advanced image analysis to continuously monitor commercial broiler flocks, map welfare assessments and estimate walking ability.
5. Hao Gan with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, in partnership with Mississippi State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and BioRICS NV, is receiving $350,000, with additional support provided by the University of Tennessee AgResearch and Peco Foods, for a total award of $513,214. Gan is using multi-angle and multi-range cameras to monitor commercial broilers at both individual and flock levels and measure their walking ability and level of activity.
6. Tom Darbonne and Dr. Brandon Carroll with AudioT are receiving $200,000, with additional support provided by Tyson Foods and Fieldale Farms, for a total award of $505,555, to develop audio-based monitoring tools created on bird vocalizations that alert farmers to broiler welfare and behavior. Bird vocalizations can provide insight into flock activity and welfare status.
This project builds on 10 years of research at the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Agricultural Technology Research Program and will result in a scalable, low-cost sensor and analytics package complementary to video-based systems.
To further support SMART Broiler, Amazon Web Services Inc. and Accenture are providing cloud services and technical consulting support to the Phase I awardees in preparation for scale-up and commercialization. The U.S. Poultry & Egg Assn. has also awarded $100,000 in sponsorship to SMART Broiler.