Chickens on camera: improved efficiency with better health and welfare

Professor Marian Dawkins and her team are working with commercial chicken producers to develop an innovative camera monitoring system to improve both chicken welfare and commercial efficiency.

Human beings eat more chickens than any other animal and, across the world, increasingly want to eat more. This rising demand for chicken meat puts chicken producers under potentially conflicting pressures to become more efficient on the one hand and to respond to increasing public pressure to improve animal welfare on the other.

Improving welfare is seen as an inevitable cost and so also as a barrier to farmers’ ability to compete on a world market. To help resolve this conflict, Professor Marian Dawkins and her multidisciplinary team are working with some major commercial chicken producers to develop a system that gives farmers both improved welfare and greater efficiency at the same time.

Broiler chickens in a chicken house
Photo by Bob Nichols, USDA

Their approach uses an inexpensive and easy to use camera/computer system, developed in collaboration with Stephen Roberts and Thomas Nickson in the Department of Engineering Science, which keeps continuous watch on chicken houses and gives the farmer an instant read-out of the health and welfare of each flock. It uses ‘optical flow’ technology that detects movements of a flock and then compares the statistical properties of this movement with that of known ‘normal’ flocks.

Findings

The combination of camera monitoring and ‘optical flow’ analysis can pick up flocks with one of the most common used measures of welfare, damaged legs and feet, as these have lower mean movement but higher extreme movement, known as kurtosis, than healthier flocks. This subtle change in flock movement shows up even when the birds are very young and are not, at that stage, showing any external signs of leg damage.

Professor Marian Dawkins and Russell Cain have been working with infectious disease specialists, Martin Maiden, Adrian Smith and Frances Colles, to extend the system to detect which flocks are infected with Campylobacter, the bacteria which is a common cause of food poisoning. This can be done when the chicks are as young as 7 days old, in contrast to standard methods that only pick up signs of infection when the birds are about three weeks old.

Wider Interest

There are many benefits of this system for the poultry industry. It is an inexpensive way of continuously monitoring the welfare of flocks even when a stockman is not even present. By having early warning of when health and welfare is beginning to decline, farmers can intervene before things become serious and limit their use of medication by targeting it where it is really needed. By producing healthier flocks, with lower mortality and higher welfare, they can achieve less wastage, increased food safety and still increase their commercial competitiveness.

Continuous monitoring will create a large, high quality evidence base of welfare data from which animal welfare scientists can draw better conclusions and policymakers can make better decisions.

The application of the optical flow camera/computer system to broiler chickens will pave the way to implementing the same for other species and to other welfare issues such as predicting outbreaks of tail-biting in pigs before serious damage is done.

Professor Marian Dawkins and her team are currently testing their system on commercial farms in the UK, France and the US.

Funding

This research is funded by the BBSRC:

Automated assessment of broiler chicken welfare using optical flow patterns in relation to behaviour, disease risk, environment and production

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Professor Marian Dawkins' website


Photo of broiler chickens and chicken house from the USDA on Flickr.