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Precision ag in the poultry barn

A prototype feeding system allows producers to allocate food individually

A prototype precision feeding system could increase broiler breeder chick production by up to 10 per cent

Precision agriculture may hold the answer to a growing problem in Canada’s broiler hatching industry.

“Every year, the broiler gets faster and heavier, and every year, the competition for feed increases,” said Martin Zuidhof, associate professor of poultry systems at the University of Alberta.

“What we’re seeing in the industry now is a huge challenge to distribute feed equally to the birds within a flock.”

Drawing on the principles of precision agriculture, Zuidhof has developed a prototype feeding system that gives “the right bird the right amount of food at the right time. That’s precision agriculture, and that’s the approach I’m taking with broiler breeders now.”

Developed in 2011 by a team of electrical, mechanical, and agriculture engineers, Zuidhof’s prototype precision feeding system evaluates each bird in real time to determine whether it’s too heavy or too light, and then makes a feeding decision accordingly.

“We’re collecting data at a resolution that we just dreamed about before,” he said. “We can then decide who gets fed and record how much every bird is eating. It’s a tremendous data set from a research perspective.”

Combined with an automated feeding system, the data will help reduce competition for feed and improve flock uniformity, which is measured by the percentage of birds within 10 per cent of the mean. Typically, having 80 to 85 per cent of birds within 10 per cent of the mean body weight is a sign of good flock uniformity — but Zuidhof wants to top that.

“The hatching producers chuckled into their sleeves, I think, when they heard me say that I’d like to achieve 100 per cent flock uniformity,” he said. “I have a very small pilot flock, but I’m at 100 per cent (of birds that are) within five per cent of the mean.”

But achieving flock uniformity isn’t the main goal.

“We’re not actually targeting uniformity for its own sake, we’re after chick production,” Zuidhof said. “We’ve come up with a hypothesis that a very stable metabolism will yield great dividends in terms of egg production and chick production from breeders.”

Evidence of this can already be seen in countries where labour is cheap and flocks are managed more closely — some get 30 to 40 more chicks per hen than here.

“We’re talking at least a 10 per cent increase in chick production, which is huge. This is a game-changing technology, if we can get it to work commercially.”

Not commercial yet

Commercial application of the technology is a ways off. In January, Zuidhof’s team will begin a 60-week trial comparing his precision-fed broilers to conventionally fed birds, followed by on-farm research trials. Once the smaller-scale studies are complete, the technology will be tweaked for a commercial trial.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in two years, we have a trial going on a commercial farm,” said Zuidhof, adding that scaling the technology for a commercial operation will present challenges.

“There are a hundred ways that we could do it. We could replace the entire feeding system in a barn, but I don’t think that’s the way we’re going to go initially. I can’t see anybody wanting to do that without some major subsidy for the equipment.”

A partial implementation, targeting either the males or the smallest birds in the flock, will work best, he said.

“I think that’s a very reasonable way to implement this system initially. We’re looking at different ways where we can make a substantial difference without the risk of 250 units all going down at the same time.”

So far, Zuidhof’s team has encountered few problems with the prototype, which is intended to run entirely on its own for the whole 60-week period the birds are in the barn. Zuidhof hopes that, once perfected, the simplicity of the system will resonate with producers.

“It just makes so much sense,” he said. “When you get information in real time and can act on it, that’s really the principle of precision agriculture, and that’s what we can do beautifully with this system.”

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