Pig sound analysis? It’s the future

The hosepipe ban has been lifted! I’m sure you will all be relieved as the weather might just change, and the great hosepipe in the sky could be turned off? We were very lucky indeed to have a dry evening for our NFU farm walk last week; it was touch and go, but it dried up in the afternoon, and remained dry all evening. You never quite know how many farmers will attend a summer farm walk, especially when the weather is so difficult to predict; we could easily have cancelled. I was determined not to do that, and luckily a good crowd made the effort to attend, and it seemed to go very well; hospitality is the key to such an event, and following a trailer tour of the farm, the anaerobic digester and the cows (still in!), we tucked into a spring lamb cooked to perfection by my neighbour and ace engineer Fred Goddard.

The main topic of the evening was straw; the price of it, the availability and how much we use in our business. I did explain that the straw muck from the yards was then used by the AD plant, and that there is a tremendous amount of gas in straw; without that option, we would not be keeping our cows on such luxurious straw yards, it would not be affordable these days as straw becomes more and more expensive due to the demand from power stations and export. However, now that the price is at this level, arable farmers are at least willing to have their straw baled, rather than chopping it behind the combine harvester.

The cows are again about to go out, weather permitting. Some of the in-calf heifers are coming in to slim off some of the excess condition prior to calving, and allow us to monitor them rather more closely; restricting their feed outside is a non-starter with grass everywhere, and we can forget taking some straw out to bare paddocks as we don’t have any (bare paddocks), and the mess would be terrible in the damp conditions. We can also introduce the heifers to some dry cows, giving them a chance to acclimatise to living with older (I hesitate to say bigger) animals. The heifers at Tillington are not keeping up with their grazing, so a further two paddocks have been shut up for second cut silage.

I was in Brussels last Friday representing European farmers on the Animal Health Advisory Committee, where a full agenda (never short of a full agenda in Brussels) kept us busy all day. We discussed the serious risk of disease entering member states from the Western Balkans, especially Rabies which is on the increase and Classical Swine Fever. The wildlife reservoir of foxes and wild boar, together with the vast areas of woods, difficult terrain and the fact that wildlife do not respect boundaries, is a major challenge. There is support and finance to tackle rabies outside the EU, in Russia, Turkey and the western Balkans; there is clear evidence of falling incidences in Serbia following two oral vaccination programmes. Croatia (joining the EU at the end of next year) could bring challenges as the country is now divided between a few very large state of the art pig units, and very many small pig farms.

We also had a lively discussion on the new rule coming in on the 1st of January next year on group housing of sows, where sow stalls are banned. We were told that this is going to happen, and the Commissioner has been talking to the Agriculture Minister, making sure that everyone is solid behind this new law. However, when questioned, officials admitted that whilst 18 member states were fully compliant, 5 member states were nearly there, and 4 member states were nowhere near. Given that the Commission is prone to exaggeration, or is given rather ambitious signals by member states, it looks certain that very many farmers will not be close to compliance on the date. When I questioned the Commission on sanctions against member states which were not compliant, and what lessons had they learnt from the laying hen directive on the fist of January this year; some irritation was detected in their response.

When they later admitted that these welfare standards will not be applied to imports, we became more than a little agitated. There will undoubtedly be a drop in pig meat production whilst the adjustments are made, this will be replaced with imports which have not been produced to the same standard (heard that one before). The EU is a net exporter of pig meat at present, and in this difficult financial climate, it seems odd to curb exports. I pointed out to the officials that whilst we as farmers have supported this change in welfare of pigs, there are clear examples of countries such as the UK exporting their industries when the same rules do not apply to others. It became a little heated when following a rather grand reply,, I suggested that whilst officials took the moral high ground, others paid for it.

We were introduced to some high technology called ‘Precision farming’ (silly title), where health and welfare can be monitored and improved with the aid of cameras, and high tech: which could assist the hard pressed farmer, who has less time to simply watch his animals. These are adapted systems which are already in use by the military, aircraft auto-pilot systems and so on. Fully automated ‘audio-visual condition scoring’, highlighting the percentages of normal, fat and thin dairy cows in large herds, also fully automated ‘locomotion and lameness’ in both sheep and cattle. A calving monitor for cows, which will alert the farmer (or even the vet), especially at night, only when things are wrong; on-line ‘pig sound analysis’, where the pigs are voice monitored, picking up the early signs of respiratory problems. All this could help the farmer and stockmen, lift health and welfare standards, also cut anti-biotic use through early detection.

It is very interesting, but whether the full transformation from machines (where it works perfectly), to living organisms is yet to be fully demonstrated. A great deal of work has been done with the Barcelona Football Club, monitoring footballers’ movements and patterns on the field. Broiler chicken distribution pattern in sheds indicate their comfort and welfare levels. Hens only scratch when they are relaxed, content and not threatened, monitoring their scratching behaviour over long periods could be a valuable tool for assessing welfare. It will need to work properly (footballers are rather simple living organisms!), be cost effective, and practical in its application; cost of such technology does plummet once established, and larger farms could benefit. We should certainly wait and see how it develops.

As we wait for the outcome in the Greek Elections, the terrible dilemma over the Euro and its effects on our economy, our own Coalition government are at war (with each other) over Jeremy Hunt! I picked up a copy of the Daily Mail (!) on my travels last Thursday only to come across a picture of my own MP Francis Maude, sitting behind Cameron at question time, obviously caught yelling and pointing at the opposition; quite frankly looking more like a mafia boss than my member of Parliament. The Liberal democrats were so terribly keen and felt so strongly about Jeremy Hunt facing Parliament to answer for his actions, that they …….abstained. Oh dear. Thank goodness proportional representation was kicked out; otherwise we would have more coalition government in the future. I am old enough to remember the ‘Lib-Lab pact’; can anyone remember it achieving anything other than clinging to power for a few months? This coalition is not achieving much either.

Gwyn Jones