Analysis: What is technology doing to poultry farms?

Computers are doing jobs that once only experienced stockmen did. At what cost, asks poultry farmer James Smaldon.

James Smaldon is a third-generation poultry farmer from North Devon. He is a Nuffield Scholar and his report into the relationship between poultry farming and new technology has just been published.

Technology is playing a growing role on poultry farms and in the whole poultry supply chain. Smaldon argues this is not always because the technology is wanted, but because it is needed, due to a shortage of skilled people to work on poultry farms.

But Smaldon wants to know what the costs are. “What happens with bird welfare when we increase the level of technology on our poultry farms and what strategies are there to minimise any reduction in their welfare?” he asks.

Asleep at the wheel

“There have been instances where Tesla drivers have been seen sleeping whilst driving, and we cannot allow an analogous experience to happen within poultry farms,” he says.

Smaldon’s report delves into the increasing use of technologies including precision livestock farming (PLF) and robots that are already or soon to be available to the UK poultry industry. He also seeks to understand what exactly bird welfare is, stripping away anthropomorphism and perception bias. Then he presents concepts to help poultry farmers, developers and the wider poultry industry to describe what is out there to help improve bird welfare in conjunction with improving productivity.

“The symbioses between technology and farming have always been at the forefront of my mind,” Smaldon writes. He describes working with a member of the farm team, Hazel, who has worked with his family since before his birth. “She is a stockperson to the core, but hates computers,” Smaldon writes. “She believes that computers can provide a lot of benefit to farms, but that it makes workers lethargic and lessens the stockmanship ability of inexperienced people.”

This is the crux of the issue Smaldon explores in this report. “I am an advocate of technology on our farms,” he says. “I can see how technology may result in productivity improvements both inside and outside the poultry sheds, but the main implication of such a technological step-up is that the stockmanship may well decrease and so counterbalance any perceived automation benefits.”

What is good welfare?

Bird welfare can be optimised through caring stockpeople; high quality inputs of feed and water; a housing environment designed to encourage play and provide access to the outdoors; and for the genetics of the bird to be optimised, such that the bird is willing to express their natural behaviours, Smaldon writes.

A huge range of equipment is used within UK poultry farms: for example, within the broiler breeder sector, there are farms with individual thermostats beneath individual fans, which turn the fan on when a specific temperature is reached: whereas other farms use advanced climate computers to incorporate as many sensors as possible to form a model of the poultry shed.

Experiences from around the world

At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, Smaldon met Dr Martin Zuidhof who has been working to provide individual feeding to chickens. It is a simple concept that has taken years to develop into a fully-functioning project.

With Dr Zuidhof’s chicken coop, a bird walks up the ramp to the first of two compartments, where it’s weighed and, if the bird is already at target weight, they are gently ejected. If they’re under the target weight, the bird is allowed into the second compartment, where they’re rewarded with some feed. Birds are able to request feed as many times during the day as they want, but once they’ve hit the target weight, there’ll be no more feed available.

With this precision feeding system, flock uniformity dramatically increases for broiler breeders; where conventional feeding systems produce around 55% uniformity at 22 weeks old, precision feeding allows for 100% uniformity. They have also seen fertility increase by nearly 4%; gut health improvements since each bird feeds between 5 and 10 times during the day as opposed to conventionally feeding birds once a day; and welfare improvements as individual birds are able to feed when they wish to and so there is less competition and stress for the available feed.

Lessons from Cobb

Siloam Springs, Arkansas, is the global headquarters of one of the largest poultry producers in the US and one of the largest broiler breed companies in the world. This is no small coincidence, as Cobb Vantress is a subsidiary of Tyson Foods. Smaldon spent a few days with Roy Mutimer, the head of operations at Cobb (since his visit, Roy Mutimer has become managing director of Cobb Europe).

Smaldon and Mutimer discussed how Cobb is using increasing levels of technology to help manage its research programme. The reality is that computer systems in poultry units are already very sophisticated, but most have relatively poor user interface design, writes Smaldon.

“An example given to me was that when a member of the Cobb technical team travels to a farm to help them with their flock, this mostly involves training the farm staff on how to use the systems they already have, not to implement anything new. The people managing the birds need to be able to understand and utilise the systems at their disposal. The next generation will take to these systems much more easily than current farm staff; as they have been immersed in a world of tablets and smartphones they will come to see the technology as a prerequisite, not a perk.”

Maximising genetic potential

Teun van der Braak is a product manager at Hendrix Genetics in Boxmeer. Smaldon met him during his visit to the Netherlands in early 2020.

Like the broiler breeding companies, Hendrix has been utilising technology within its breeding programme; the pure line birds have RFIDs, and automatic reviews of grandparent genetic profiles are performed to ensure correct parents (before genomics, they had a 5% parentage error rate which is now down to 0.1%).

Teun and Smaldon spoke for an afternoon about the intricacies and nuances of layer breeding. “I had no idea that the genetic potential of a chicken is more than 10,000 eggs,” says Smaldon. “ Hendrix are finding that the best producing hens can lay 575 eggs in 576 days, and are expecting an additional week of production per year of development.”

The benefits

It’s clear there are massive benefits to productivity from technology. However, there are pitfalls. “Technology does not care,” writes Smaldon. “Technology does not feel empathy. Technology does not ‘think on its feet’. However, technology also doesn’t come to work angry, does not fall ill and does not make silly mistakes.” This means the link between human and animal is necessary and absolute.

“My findings showed that both precision and autonomous technology can provide benefits to the poultry industry, with a variety of robots, computer systems and revolutionary systems nearing commercial viability,” he says.

“Human connection with our animals is the most important link in the technological chain; we are here to make key decisions, to take responsibility, and to react to situations which cannot be predicted. The role of stockpeople will shift; there will be less manual handling, increased supervision of equipment, and vastly increased time to be actual stockpeople.”

He points out that during the adoption of technology, novel systems are likely to create a ‘welfare falter’ which represents a temporary drop in bird welfare through a lack of competency with these systems.

However manufacturers and farmers should be able to minimise the reduction in welfare to an absolute minimum and for the shortest period possible. “In summary, technology is here to stay and, whilst some may resist its adoption within poultry farms, it is better to embrace, learn, understand and share so that farmers, consumers and – most importantly – the birds all benefit.”

 Key findings.

  1. Do not assume that people can be reduced or removed. Technology needs to complement and augment people, not be a substitute.
  2. Developing technology is usually done by those with an intrinsic understanding of technology. Farming is usually done by those with an intrinsic understanding of animals. There are very few people where these two fields overlap. Technology must be developed to:
  3. a) be familiar to those with limited technology understanding.
  4. b) make the easiest action, the correct action. Preferred actions should not be hidden beneath menus.
  5. c) Provide visibility to the full capabilities (whether immediately or through progression) of the technology and provide everyday analogies to aid understanding.
  6. Welfare Falter can be mitigated through a number of strategies:
  7. a) bring stockpeople on the journey, as opposed to imposing technology upon them,
  8. b) provide training for people to understand what they don’t know, so that focus is retained, and
  9. c) Embrace early adopters and help them progress through the stages of competence.

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