Newcastle University study to improve health of pigs

NEW technology is being used in the hunt for porcine perfection as part of a new research project to improve the health and welfare of pigs on farms.

Newcastle University student Sophia Stavrakakis with a pig
Newcastle University student Sophia Stavrakakis with a pig

NEW technology is being used in the hunt for porcine perfection as part of a new research project to improve the health and welfare of pigs on farms.

The Newcastle University study aims to predict which pigs are likely to become lame by analysing the way they walk.

Lameness in pigs can lead to them being destroyed and is a major cost on the farming industry.

The university research saw animal technicians train a herd of pigs to all walk the same way before video motion capture – a technique similar to that used in animation for Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar and Lord of the Rings – was used to measure changes in the pigs’ gait, focusing on the angle of the joints and length of stride.

By assessing what constitutes “normal” gait in pigs, the team reveals how the system could be used to reduce lameness, improving health and welfare on farms, reducing costs and improving sustainability.

It is now hoped that the tests can be modified so that individual farmers can use it on their farms to improve pig welfare.

PhD student Sophia Stavrakakis, who has presented the Newcastle team’s findings at the 22nd International Pig Veterinary Society Congress in South Korea, said: “Lameness among livestock is a major problem for farmers.

“Female breeding pigs are particularly prone to leg problems and this makes it costly for farmers when an animal becomes lame because of the time and money invested in the breeding stock.

“Using biomechanical motion capture we are able to measure the animals’ gait – tracking a number of animals to find the right angulation and locomotion.

“Through this we hope to be able to develop a farmer-friendly system that will allow them to identify those pigs with better legs, a trait that can be passed on to subsequent generations.”

Lameness is a key welfare indicator in all livestock and the second most common reason for sows having to leave the breeding herd.

If an animal fails to respond to treatment, lameness can lead to it being put down.

As part of the study, the pigs were trained to walk along a runway by Mark Brett, a former zoo keeper who is now an animal technician at the university’s Cockle Park Farm.

Once the pigs had learned to walk at the right speed, the team attached reflective markers at key points on their legs and used motion capture cameras to track their movement and identify those parameters which can indicate a good pig. The results provide an initial benchmark against which other pigs can be assessed.

“Making sure the pigs all walked at the same pace was crucial because otherwise you can’t accurately compare leg movement and angles,” explains Dr Jonathan Guy, a lecturer in animal science and project supervisor.

Miss Stavrakakis, who came to Newcastle after getting her first degree in veterinary medicine at the University of Thessaly in Greece, said: “The work is still in its early stages but the aim is to use our research to make a real difference to both pig farmers and their animals.

“Using CCTV-style cameras placed strategically on the farm so that every pig walks past and is captured on camera would be a simple, non-invasive way of collating key data about each pig and identifying those animals which are least likely to suffer problems in the future.”


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