Device designed to reduce devastating piglet crushing
June 2, 2017
Piglet crushing by sows is a bigger problem than many realize, with upwards of 15 percent of piglets dying in the preweaning stage. Almost half of those losses occur within the first three days of birth, caused by sows.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these losses occur in both indoor and outdoor farrowing systems. A Purdue University doctoral research student, Gabriela Munhoz Morello, discovered that farrowing crates are a contributing factor to prewean mortality rates. Research conducted between 2013 and 2014 in a 10,000-head sow breeding to farrowing operation facility discovered that out of 1,287 sows and litters studied, 63 percent of all piglet deaths were caused by sow crushing. The industry has set a standard of 10 percent loss as "acceptable."
But Matthew Rooda, 23, of Iowa was disturbed by even the 10 percent acceptable loss rate. He was working at a large-scale swine operation while attending community college and decided enough was enough when he found that one sow had crushed eight of her recently birthed piglets in one hour. So he sat down and brainstormed how he could help reduce those losses.
"For the longest time, it was just something you dealt with," Rooda said. "But I knew we could teach the sows. They're smart and can be conditioned if you can just find a way to train them."
Rooda had a few ideas that he scratched, but then after speaking with veterinarians about using a baby monitor-like approach, he teamed up with engineers who could help develop technology that testing showed would work.
The technology relied on identifying the wavelengths and frequencies of piglet squeals. He used a decibel reader for fine tuning those sounds and took hundreds of samples of their distressed noises.
The device itself is easy to use and includes an innovative alert system for producers.
"The device is plugged into the heat lamp, because the temperature sensor on the monitor will help regulate the temperature in the pen. The current industry standard is to do this at a room level, but this is done at pen level. There's a microphone that listens to the piglets squeal and if it hears what's considered a crushing squeal, it waits 8 seconds to give the mom time to stand up. If she doesn't, it sends a pulsing, annoying vibration to the mom. It's slow and subtle starting out, because you don't want to scare or startle them," Rooda said.
Rooda emphasized that this approach to reducing piglet crushing is stress-free and painless. If the sow does not stand up, the device sends an alert to the producer letting the farmer know what's happening, so someone can intervene.
The device also has a health tracking component that measures factors ranging from a sow's movement to the pen's temperature that is relayed to the producer and used to make operational decisions.
"Piglet crushing really is a big problem. I've seen my family and others deal with this. Knowing that I can make a difference for myself and others by reducing this is a great feeling," Rooda said. "Last year, 116 million pigs were crushed. More than 30 billion pounds of pork, just gone. This will help producers be more sustainable."
Donald Lay, research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service at Purdue University, agreed that piglet crushing is a "significant problem" for the swine industry and for animal welfare. However, Lay said that this type of technology isn't suitable as proven in a study carried out with a similar device created 20 years ago.
"This exact research has already been done. It doesn't work. It also causes a welfare problem for the sow," Lay said. "Sows, like any animal, are very sensitive to electrical shock. Once she is shocked, she will become more nervous and agitated. That is why the swine industry advocates to put electric prods away unless absolutely needed. When a sow has piglets, we want her to be as calm as possible and responsive to her piglets. If she is shocked and then gets up, she has to lie down again, which provides another opportunity to crush another pig."
While Rooda's device is interesting and many believe it holds promise, what's even more surprising is that Rooda is only 23 and has created a company and team of industry leaders to push it through.
"I never imagined all of this. It's exciting. It's fun to look back at the last eight years where you're burned out working on this, but it's so exciting," he said. "My brother is three years younger than me and this has inspired him to get involved in the distribution sector and has a team working with him, too. It's really cool to see how one thing can inspire others to pursue their dreams, as well."
The device currently is in the testing phase. Plans are to unveil it for widespread use in time for the June 2018 World Pork Expo.
Rooda also was recognized for his invention and the company, SwineTech, which earned the national title at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards held in Kansas City. SwineTech also has been recognized as one of Inc. magazine's 16 coolest college startups. SwineTech also received the Student Innovation of the Year honor at the 2017 Prometheus Awards and has won the Lemelson-MIT Invention Award. ❖
— Danley-Greiner has spent more than 20 years as a journalist covering local, state and national issues important to agriculture and those dedicated to farming.