Critical voices among Western consumers and consumer organisations are growing louder when it comes to animal welfare in livestock farming. The sector is responding to this criticism by introducing new animal stabling that offers more space for animals to display their natural behaviour, with egg producers going free range and pigs being housed in groups.
However, greater social interaction between animals often leads to undesirable consequences, such as hens pecking at each other’s feathers and pigs biting each other’s tails. Hendrix Genetics is collaborating on a long-term project that aims to generate insights into how this kind of damaging behaviour arises, and how it can be tackled.
Even if they have no ethical objection to eating meat, many consumers want farmers to maintain animal welfare during the breeding period, and they also take an interest in the environmental footprint of the production process. With that in mind, the livestock farming sector is experimenting on a large scale with modern stables that better reflect the natural habitat of breeding animals. However, this development comes with its own challenges, as the sector is not yet in a position to understand and predict how animals will behave in these relatively new surroundings.
A consortium of three universities (Eindhoven University of Technology, Wageningen University and Research, and Utrecht University), three organisations (De Nederlandse Boerenbond, the Royal Dutch Zoological Society and the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals) and six companies (Hendrix Genetics, Topigs-Norsvin, Vencomatic, Noldus IT, Sorama and FarmResult) has initiated a new project to tackle those challenges: IMAGEN. The name, which incorporates parts of the words ‘animal’, ‘group’ and ‘sensor’, points to the goal of the project: to develop a prototype hardware and software system that will fully automate the detection and real-time analysis of the behaviour of laying hens and pigs that are kept in large groups.
A brand new arena
The partners in this project see the rapid progress in camera detection and AI technologies as a brand new arena where that goal can be achieved. The ultimate aim is to achieve a better understanding of the social interactions between animals in social groups, as well as identifying genetic and environmental factors that determine the health, welfare and environmental footprint of breeding animals. For Hendrix Genetics, the data will enable the company to use genetic modelling to breed laying hens that no longer display specific negative group behaviours.
The IMAGEN project is also aligned with the SMART project in Turkey, in which Hendrix Genetics focuses on the automated detection of individual health- and behaviour-related phenotypes in turkeys.