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Project to develop automated tools to assess chicken welfare

U.K. research team will test vision-based system to monitor flock behavior with goal of designing better environment for birds.

Academics from Queen's University Belfast have been awarded $310,738 for research on intelligent welfare monitoring of chickens, according to an announcement.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and McDonald's announced that professor Niamh O'Connell from the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen's University Belfast in the U.K. is one of six recipients funded in Phase 1 of the SMART Broiler program -- a research initiative that is awarding more than $4 million in grants and technical support to develop automated monitoring tools that precisely assess chicken welfare.

She will work jointly on this project with leading experts in video analytic techniques based at the Queen's Institute of Electronics, Communications & Information Technology (ECIT).

O'Connell, in partnership with Northern Ireland poultry producer Moy Park, will use the funding to develop a vision-based system that leverages novel crowd analysis research and applies it to the tracking and behavioral analysis of a flock of chickens. This will enable researchers to monitor large numbers of birds, track their activity patterns and gather welfare indicators such as gait, feather cleanliness and the incidence of play behavior.

O'Connell said, "We are delighted to receive this research funding. Using vision-based technologies to monitor animal behavior offers enormous opportunities to the agri-food sector. Working with Moy Park, this project will trial the technology with poultry and will help us better understand how the birds engage with their environment and each other. We're particularly interested in indicators of positive emotion or 'happiness,' such as play."

O'Connell conducts farm animal health and welfare research and has specific expertise in applied, on-farm work.  One of her research themes focuses on poultry welfare, in particular on helping design optimal housing environments for farmed chickens. 

Dr. Paul Miller, research director of security intelligence at the ECIT institute, noted that the new multidisciplinary research effort "brings together the animal behavioral scientists in IGFS with the technologists working in ECIT. Our video analytics research has been focused on enhancing resilience of large crowds of people found in, for example, a sports stadium or a railway station. Now, we will adapt our work to understand the behavior of a flock of birds. This will be very challenging, but the insights gathered will enable professor O'Connell's team to design better environments for rearing birds."

Ursula Lavery, Moy Park technical and research and development director Europe, said, “We are passionate about understanding our birds even more and are excited to continue our work in partnership with professor O'Connell and the [Queen's University Belfast] team. This project offers the potential to really bring a step change in how we measure the positive welfare indicators of our birds.”

Current methods for assessing chicken welfare on the farm often rely on human observation, which may be subjective and result in delayed intervention. SMART Broiler is developing automated sensors, monitoring, analysis and reporting technologies to objectively and comprehensively assess welfare worldwide.

FFAR executive director Dr. Sally Rockey said, “FFAR was 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. 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.”

TAGS: Poultry
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