Tracking pig fights with cutting-edge technology

Nobody likes to see a fight — not between people, and not between pigs.

Pig farmers struggle to deal with aggression in their animals. Injuries inflicted on pigs, by pigs can negatively impact productivity and animal growth. Pregnant sows are often separated from other pigs so that aggression won’t affect the unborn offspring. While this practice eliminates fighting, it presents different welfare concerns, so farmers are looking to move towards keeping pigs in larger groups.

To that end, researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) are launching an investigation with the goal of developing methods to breed pigs that fight less, so that they don’t have to be separated.

“Keeping pigs in larger social groups solves some problems but creates others,” said MSU animal geneticist Juan Steibel, the study’s leader. “Fortunately, we now have the technology to address those new problems.”

The team will base its work on previous studies conducted by Steibel and MSU animal behavioral scientist Janice Siegford that show a connection between pig genetics and aggressive behavior. In the new research, the team plans to use cutting-edge technology to keep track of which pigs are the most peaceable.

The latest in video technology will help the team monitor large amounts of animals at once. With specially-programmed software that can recognize individual pigs on-screen, researchers will note particular characteristics of each pig, such as head shape and size. Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium are supporting the study by programming the software to recognize specific acts of aggression, like biting and pushing.

A team from the Scotland Royal University College is also helping by adding thermal imaging to the software. When pigs fight, their pulse quickens and body temperature rises. So by heat-tracking the animals, aggression can be captured by infrared cameras.

Another group supporting the MSU researchers from abroad comes from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. The Argentinian researchers will help MSU use the data collected to construct genetic models so that breeders can select pigs with less aggressive, higher-performance traits.

“Getting these systems to work well together is very challenging, but now it’s feasible,” said Steibel. “Ten years ago, I would have called it science fiction.”

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