University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture biosystems engineer Hao Gan was one of six recently announced recipients of a Phase I grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research SMART Broiler Initiative.
The initiative is awarding more than $4 million in grants and technical support to develop automated monitoring tools that precisely assess broiler chicken welfare. Current methods for assessing broiler chicken welfare on farms rely on human observation and subjective scoring, the University of Tennessee said.
Gan is working to develop a system of multi-angle and multi-range cameras to monitor commercial broilers at both the individual and flock levels to help producers monitor the chickens’ level of activity. Using vision software and training, farmers should be able to generate a specific and meaningful animal-based measurement that allows them to enhance raising practices, the university said in an announcement.
The metric should also serve as a common assessment tool for food retailers and consumers seeking to support practices that enhance animal welfare.
“Our design approach is to incorporate vision software training with input from professional welfare assessors to produce an assessment system that solves the expense and labor shortages associated with current manual welfare assessments,” Gan said. However, “the system also needs to maintain the accuracy and integrity of manual assessments.”
The continuous operation of the automated system would reduce the number of hours of manual labor associated with welfare assessment while increasing the monitoring of bird health and activity, the announcement said.
Gan noted that improved farmer efficiency must go hand in hand with enhanced animal welfare.
“Consumers worldwide are justifiably concerned with food animal welfare and seek to make purchasing decisions that result in improved raising practices. A challenge in addressing this concern is the need to develop tools that quantify food animal behavior -- the ultimate welfare indicator,” Gan said.
Gan, and his research partners from Mississippi State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and BioRICS NV, intend for the system output to be a flock benchmark score for use by the farmer, food retailer and, ultimately, the consumer.
For the first time, the poultry industry and consumers may have a tool that works to improve raising practices and that provides an animal-based metric to help purchasing decisions, the University of Tennessee said.