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Revolutionizing Pork Production: The Impact of Agricultural Technologies

March 2, 2023
Dr. David Rosero

In his role as technical officer at the Hanor Company, Dr. David Rosero is working to advance sow nutrition and to create feeding programs that maximize the lifetime productivity and profitability of sows.

What happens when technology and the swine industry collide? Dr. David Rosero, a technical officer at the Hanor Company, joins the Ag Future podcast to discuss the latest game-changing technologies in the field, such as cameras for estimating pig weights and sensors for measuring feed consumption. Listen to learn how these technologies are creating opportunities for innovation and increasing efficiency in the industry.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Dr. David Rosero hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.


Tom:            Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore our opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.


                     One of the interesting benefits of having done the Alltech Ag Future podcast over the years has been the opportunity to observe an industry undergoing a full-blown evolution driven by a pretty relentless convergence of agriculture and technology. This is happening across the industry, but today, we’re focusing on a particular sector: swine, where technologies are revolutionizing pork production as we know it.


                     Joining me is Dr. David Rosero, a technical officer at the HANOR Company, where he oversees the diverse technical aspects of the company’s operations, including nutrition, research and development, business intelligence and innovations. Welcome, David.


David:           Thank you, Tom.


Tom:            What are some examples of important (and) maybe even game-changing agricultural technologies that have emerged in recent years?


David:           Well, I have a couple of examples that I can speak of. I think (the use of) cameras to estimate the weight of pigs, that's very, very exciting to see — the accuracy on how those cameras are predicting how well or not-as-well our pigs are growing. Another one, I think, to me, that's very impactful is the sensors on the bins (that are) estimating how much feed is going into the bins and how much consumption is occurring in our barns of the feed. (That’s) just to mention a few.


I've been working and connecting with other companies. I'm very excited to see that more and more people are coming into smart farming and the digital transformation, (much like) what I said — using software to improve productivity. Pig flow is an example, for instance. I think some analytics are coming along (as well), just to mention a few, Tom.


Tom:            The first item that you mentioned — cameras can give us the information on (pigs’) weight?


David:           Correct.


Tom:            How do they do that?


David:           It's a process — and I'm not an expert in that. I'm a nutritionist by training. But as I understand it, the computer will analyze the image — but you'll need thousands of pictures of pigs, and you'll need the weight of the pig along with that image. That's an example of artificial intelligence the computer will create, I think, to guide the algorithm. The computer will analyze the variables in the image. It will allow for a better prediction of the weights. In the process, we had to weigh, as you can imagine, thousands and thousands of pigs to improve that accuracy (of the computer program).


                     Something else to be speaking on as something we'd like to see in any technology that's measuring something (is that) it has to be accurate. For that specific example, on the camera, we have gotten to 97% to 98% accuracy in predicting the weights of pigs in any given phase of growth.


Tom:            How do these technologies create opportunities for innovation in the swine industry?


David:           That's a good question. Maybe I'll follow up with the same example of the camera. Imagine (that) you can measure how your pigs are growing in the multiple barns you have in the (different) regions (of the world). In Iowa, for instance, where we have the majority of our pigs, we can understand how pigs will grow in the different environments and the different flows of pigs that we're having. It will be so much (more) powerful for us. It's where we can find opportunities to make improvements. I can think (a lot) about that example.


Tom:            It seems like a time-saving efficiency, too, in terms of the time it would take to weigh living pigs versus being able to shoot a photo or at least observe them through a camera.


David:           That's correct, Tom. It's almost impossible to think that you can take the scales to the different sites of pigs to try to collect that information. Maybe some of the other ways we're using (this technology), where you weigh a truck of pigs, it might be not as accurate. So yeah, I think it's labor-saving. I think it's also the increase of data that's coming to you to understand your business (at a) deeper (level).


Tom:            You mentioned artificial intelligence. What's the latest on ways that AI — and the Internet of Things, for that matter — are making impacts on commercial pig farms?


David:           I think we're starting to see the beginning of something (that's) going to go big. I think, to get to that point, we need to have sensors. We have to have camera devices that collect this data, but these will have to be very robust, and they will have to be reliable. We have hundreds of sites in any given region and thousands of pigs growing at the same time. To expand these (technologies), they have to comply with the requirements of the environment.


                     I think we're passing that point now. I think we can install sensors in barns and they are going to last for a long time. They are going to provide you reliable data. I think that's the (next) phase and what I see in the commercial side that we are into. The next phase is where you can use that data to move it through the computer’s artificial intelligence algorithm and drive the business. I haven't seen clear examples on that yet.


                     Something that I can think of now, from the top of my head, is the health (aspect). I know the softwares we have explored and we have seen being watched are (analyzing) pictures of pigs that are sick. Veterinarians will send a picture, and the computer will analyze the picture and suggest some diagnostics of the pig or the disease. If you can tie that to how pigs grow, maybe diagnostics of samples that are coming back from the lab — that's also very powerful. That'll be a good example of what I can think of quickly on artificial intelligence.


Tom:            Sure. It's a weighty subject, for sure. What about robotics? How is robotics being used in pig farming, and what are the benefits?


David:           I can see many benefits, but we probably are still in the first phase. A good example would be washing the barns. I think there are automatic washing machines now that you can put into barns. I have seen it. We haven't tested it. Probably, it's going to come to another generation, where they're going to be more affordable and more precise in what they're able to do, but that will be impactful for the labor, especially thinking about the activities in the barn, in commercial operations, where you can make it more efficient. I can think about robotics taking some of those tasks that are very repetitive and doing it in a better way.


Tom:            How are technologies like augmented reality or 3D printing being applied to farm operations, and how do they impact efficiencies?


David:           I haven't seen much on the 3D (printing aspect), Tom, to be honest, that are (being used) in the commercial level (or) being applied, but I can see where augmented reality is starting to come into our hands. I have seen examples (of the use of augmented reality) on the dairy operations. If you have the information for every animal, if you know the age of — think about, in a sow farm, where you have 2,000 to 6,000 sows in operation. If you can have the information of every sow, their history and their health status, and if you can manage it, I think it's going to be more powerful to manage individual sows.


Tom:            A key goal for you has been to advance sow nutrition and to create feeding programs that maximize the lifetime productivity and the profitability of sows. How have technologies moved us toward that goal?


David:           I think those are helping us to apply these technologies and nutrition programs in a better way. It doesn’t relate much to smart pig farming, but I can think about a great tool in the last years that we've been having, which is a sow caliper. It's a very simple tool, but yet, (it’s) very powerful. I've been thinking about applying (that tool to) my nutrition programs. It allows me to be more precise in how I measure the body condition to feed the herd better. I think these will be a good example for what we can do with more advanced technologies (and) implementing those (within) feeding programs in a better way.


Tom:            Swine industry productivity has been trending upwards over the past 15 years or so, and much of that increased productivity is due to increased pigs per litter and increased market weights. What's driven those improvements?


David:           Well, you can go back into the years of genetic selection. I think that's key on getting the number of pigs born (to be) higher. I think we are also getting to understand better some stress situations and disease situations where we can manage our sow herds better. Feeding programs, too — I think they have made an impact.


                     I think we will be talking a little bit about my work and my doctorate on essential fatty acids. That addressed one of the situations we had in the sows with heat stress and where we had seen seasonality and seasonal infertility. I think it's a combination of multiple things, mainly driven by the genetic selection on the number of pigs that a sow will have. I think, in the marketplace, I think that's what the market is demanding today. That's what the plan is paying you for. I think we have, as nutritionists, learned how to feed those heavier pigs better.


Tom:            What challenges have producers faced as a result of COVID-19, and how have they overcome those challenges?


David:           Well, it was a very challenging situation, all things considered. Everything came quickly to us. One of the challenges, I suppose, is to manage the number of pigs we had to process to plants. I think labor came later and is still an issue, not just to farms but to the plants and their capacity to process the pigs. I think we've gotten better in predicting our flaws. A number of pigs are going to go through the system, and managing the weights of the pigs to get to a target weight. I think we have become more precise. With labor, I think we have optimized tasks that needed to be done. I think we had to reanalyze ourselves on what are the basics, and we had to do the correct basics.


I think biosecurity is another positive thing I can get out of COVID. I think it taught everybody how a virus can move so quickly into the environment. For the pig business, it's no different. In our daily challenges, we have different viruses coming along. Just think about how conscientious the people will become after knowing (about the reality of dealing with) a virus — and (how that relates) to herds (and) how to care better for our sows.


Tom:            I'm just wondering if you have a finger on the pulse of what's going on in the industry's research and development labs. Anything exciting going on there?


David:           I think so. Thinking about COVID again, another positive thing I can get out (of the pandemic) is the development of vaccines and the new technologies that it has brought to us. One of our biggest challenges, Tom, is health challenges we have in sow herds and pig herds. I think, (in terms) of how to deal with those viruses, we have gained a large amount of knowledge into that. I think, coming up, the smart pig farming, it will allow us to manage our barns with less labor, and that's going to address the current issue we have.


Tom:            You touched a few minutes ago on your own research focusing on understanding the nutritional value of essential fatty acids and their effects on long-term sow productivity. Tell us more about that.


David:           We started focusing about (the question of) what can we do with sows during summer? That was the original question: Can we increase the energy by providing more fat into the diet? That's something common to do, especially in the sow. Something that triggered the next question on the essential fatty acids is that we tried different fats, and the outcome was different. When we analyzed the fats, the biggest difference was the level of essential fatty acids in one of the sources.


                     Investigating about the (role of) essential fatty acids, you'll learn about these being a precursor of hormones that are important for reproduction. Then (we) started thinking about the seasonality, the infertility during the summer that occurs in the sow herds. So we tested it out, and I think we had a really good outcome and an understanding that if you provide the right level of linoleic acid, the sow will maintain pregnancy longer. They won't lose (that) pregnancy over time. I think that explained, in a portion, what happens during your seasonal infertility.


                     By doing that, I think we have eliminated it. Obviously, heat stress is going to affect sows. Unless you provide the right environment and can afford (to completely avoid) it, sows are going to have heat stress. But the portion that is nutrition-related, I think, to me, it comes (down) to the linoleic acid or the essential fatty acids. If you provide the right level (of those ingredients), you won't see much of that problem.


Tom:            All right. That's Dr. David Rosero, technical officer at the HANOR Company. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Rosero.


David:           Thank you, Tom. My pleasure.


Tom:            For the Alltech Ag Future podcast, I'm Tom Martin. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.