The way Chickens Run predicts health and welfare

Commercial broiler chicken farmers face overwhelming  pressure to increase efficiency, improve food safety, combat disease, reduce antibiotic use and maintain high animal welfare.

A team at the University of Oxford have developed a camera monitoring system designed to improve the welfare of animals and the commercial efficiency of farmers. It works by detecting the overall movement of groups and has substantial research evidence to show that it works well on commercial farms to deliver information that is of direct use to producers. Using the system, welfare problems can be detected and predicted days or weeks in advance. The system gives an  accurate and earlier indication of the health and welfare outcomes, compared to current low-tech methods used in the Industry.  It is capable of detecting flocks infected with Campylobacter, a major concern for the Broiler industry, far earlier than is currently possible.

An industry under pressure

Chicken production is big business. Globally, over 60 billion chickens are raised for meat each year and demand for chicken is rising and is predicted to keep rising. But to meet this demand, chicken farmers face a formidable array of problems: economic pressures to produce more ‘efficiently’ (grow their birds faster and with less food and in less space), to improve food safety and to combat disease but to do so with reduced antibiotics and at the same time to deliver safe, high welfare food at a competitive price in the face of rising feed prices.

A disruptive, technical solution

Using a small number of video cameras and a small processor, the Oxford system is inexpensive, easy to install, unobtrusive and can be left to run continuously throughout the life of a flock, delivering information in real-time. The technology could either be used as a stand-alone system or integrated into a farmer’s existing environmental monitoring system.

Using a sophisticated analysis to measure brightness variability in consecutive video frames, a property called optical flow, the system informs the user of the flock’s status every 15 minutes. It enables farmers to keep a constant watch on all of their flocks and to take action at the first signs of disease or poor welfare.

A strong research base shows that welfare problems in a flock can not only be detected by disturbances to these patterns but actually be predicted days or weeks in advance. The system gives a far more accurate and earlier indication of the health and welfare outcomes that are of real interest to producers than the current methods used. The Oxford system is even able to detect flocks infected with Campylobacter, a major concern for the Broiler industry far earlier than is possible with existing sampling methods.

We believe the Oxford system could not only add significant value to companies operating in the poultry industry but also have future applications in other areas of agriculture, being particularly suitable for cases where large numbers of animals are kept together but where tagging or tracking of individuals is not practical.

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