The Haven: letting the sunshine into animal agriculture

The Haven provides over four cubic feet of space for piglets; saving energy while keeping them safe, warm, and healthy.

Born without temperature regulation abilities or antibody protection, piglets rely on their mother’s milk to keep warm. Their bodies contain fat for approximately one day of life, and they do not have innate heat capacity or energy reserves. Anything that impacts piglet milk consumption (such as chilling), risks higher rates of mortality in newborn piglets.

In most modern farrowing operations ambient room temperatures are kept at around 75°F but, in a perfect world, sows are most comfortable and produce the best milk when ambient temperatures are around 65°F. Piglets, on the other hand, need adequate supplemental heat to keep their internal body temperatures between 101°F – 102.5°F. These vastly different thermal needs have challenged producers to find ways to safely and efficiently deliver supplemental heat to the piglets while keeping the sow cool and comfortable. This dynamic has proven to be difficult and expensive to overcome.

The $300bn hog industry’s solution to this problem is the heat lamp; a lightbulb that transmits heat instead of light. This method heats piglets unevenly, creating large areas of either too much or too little heat. Newly born piglets search out their mother for a source of heat, but risk being accidentally crushed. Moreover, these lamps create significant amounts of heat waste that can also negatively affect sow health. Although these lamps are relatively inexpensive, hog producers pay the price when it comes to wasted heat, sow health, and piglet mortality.

Pre-wean mortality

Although piglets may be born alive and healthy, they remain at risk of crushing by the sow after birth. Most farms routinely collect data on the numbers of piglets born alive and dead but may mis-identify piglets as stillborn when they have in fact been crushed by the sow after their birth. Furthermore, as litter sizes increase, so does pre-wean mortality. This is a common problem affecting pork production, with average industry pre-weaning mortality rates higher than 17%. Even when farrowing crates are used, it can still be a major problem—heating devices need to be carefully managed to prevent piglets sleeping too close to the sow.

Sub-optimal thermal environments are correlated with every preventable cause of pre-wean mortality. Although creep heat areas in farrowing crates are often termed ‘micro-climates’, they are not conventionally separated from the ambient environment that the sows inhabit. The creation of an uninsulated, uncontained microclimate for piglets antagonises the sow, who occupies the ambient environment.

As mentioned, sows prefer temperatures between 60-65°. Producing heat for piglets that warms the sows’ environment necessitates ventilation to cool them. That ventilation, in turn, circulates convection currents that steal heat from the bodies of the piglets. These drafts increase the need for supplemental heat to preserve the health and well-being of the piglets and the cycle continues. Uncontained micro-climates are incredibly wasteful, and energy spent in the pursuit of heating piglets and ventilating farrowing rooms for sows represents a significant amount of the total energy used in a farrowing facility. The current system is akin to opening all the windows in a house and turning up the thermostat in the winter.

Perinatal hypothermia

Worldwide in 2019, over a billion piglets were weaned and marketed. This number has been increasing steadily over the past decades as the industry has seen consolidation, expanded capacity and productivity gains (measured in pigs per sow per litter, or PSY). For all the improvements in farrowing management practices and breeding, however, preweaning mortality remains a persistent issue.

According to a recent study commissioned by the US National Pork Board, over 17% of live-born pigs do not survive the farrowing process. At current market prices, this represents an annual revenue loss of over $50bn global pork producers.

Records of piglet mortality in commercial units indicate that most deaths of liveborn piglets are attributed to crushing and starvation, but these ultimate causes are often secondary to the effects of perinatal hypothermia. The newborn pig is poorly insulated and maintenance of its homeothermic balance depends essentially on its capacity to produce heat. However, piglets are born without brown adipose tissue, which most mammals burn to increase body temperature when they are cold. Therefore, piglets rely almost exclusively on shivering thermogenesis for thermoregulatory purposes. Thermal insulation remains low and constant during the first postnatal days.

In the absence of thermal insulation against a cool environment, thermogenesis by shivering occurs, using the same stores of energy that would be converted to fat tissue to insulate the piglet. This leads to stress and poor feed conversion rates, which begins a deleterious cycle of behaviours that puts the piglets at risk of crushing and starvation and weakens them to disease-causing pathogens in the farrowing room environment.

Heat sources: heat lamps and plastic heat mats

Often both heat lamps and plastic heat mats are used as a heat source. Neither is an efficient, effective or safe source of supplemental heat. Heat lamps are the most popular supplemental heat sources and the least efficient. A heat lamp typically casts energy to the surface in a gradient pattern with the centre much hotter than the outside. The centre of the heat gradient is often hot enough to injure piglets. The Phillips 175W heat lamp bulb (one of the most popular heat lamps in use in farrowing rooms) showed temperatures in the centre of over 170°F – hot enough to scorch and injure piglets.

To give a better understanding of the gradient in temperatures that piglets can experience in these situations: the centre of the thermal pattern of these lamps is hotter than the temperature to which pork must be cooked to be safe for human consumption and the outer ring of the thermal pattern does not provide enough supplemental heat for habituation. The small area in between approximately makes up 20% of the total heated or Net Usable Area (NUA). Additionally, because the NUA is so small, there is not enough room for all the piglets in a typical litter, especially as litter sizes continue to increase. This causes piglets to fight for control of the NUA. The smaller and weaker piglets are then expelled from the area and tend to return to the sow for heat, which places them in danger of being crushed. Piglets that are not properly warmed also become stressed and their feed conversion rates suffer, inhibiting growth which leads to further decline in the ability to feed – a cycle that often ends with the death of a piglet from starvation or chilling.

The inefficiencies inherent in the use of heat lamps are quite staggering— Most of the infrared energy is radiated into a spot that is too hot for piglet habitation and has no chance to impact the piglet, instead cast as waste heat into the ambient environment. Both heat mats and heat lamps can cause electric shock to piglets and to employees. Heat lamp bulbs are easily broken in the harsh conditions of the farrowing house, and the exposed elements can shock animals and short to start fires. Heat mats also have useful life and serviceability issues. Piglets often chew the electrical cords of heat mats which are at the ground level. This can cause serious injury to the animals through contact with the exposed wires and cause electrical shorts in the cord which can easily start fires in a farrowing room.

As pork producers continue their efforts to improve profits, sustainability, animal well-being, the environment, public health, their people and communities, a solution to this long-standing problem is a must going forward. Precision livestock production practices, advances in welfare programs, a reduction in the use of antibiotics, and environmental improvements for the animals are all key to achieving these goals.

The solution

FarrPro envisioned a microclimate enclosure that creates a safer, more comfortable environment for piglets and sows while significantly reducing the energy costs for farrowing operations. The result is the FarrPro Haven, an extended parabolic shaped reflective shield mounted over an electric element that emits infrared energy which feels like noon sunshine shining down on the piglets. Its unique design covers two neighbouring creeps (area where piglets reside) and delivers highly efficient, focused heat energy within draft-free microchambers. The Haven’s elongated, semi-enclosed design provides over four  cubic feet of space for piglets to rest when they are not nursing, keeping them safe, warm and healthy.

According to recently published peer-reviewed research conducted by Iowa State University, FarrPro’s Haven has been scientifically proven to reduce pre-wean mortality by 20% and energy use by 50% compared to the heat lamp control. The research also showed that there were additional indications of other ancillary benefits that warrant further study to include improved sow comfort resulting in better milk production and heavier piglets delivered to the nursery.

Product development

In late 2016, FarrPro co-founder and CEO Amos Petersen was working to help solve another problem within the farrowing room when he found Danish research that had been conducted on alternative housing for sows, raising piglets in deep straw. The piglets burrowed in the straw to make tunnels to reach the sow and stay warm at the same time. Petersen then went on to identify the root cause of most crush deaths in commercial farrowing operations in the US: chilled pigs. The Haven was the resultant product, a semi-enclosed microclimate chamber that keeps the sow cool, the piglets warm and healthy and reduced energy uses by eliminating a destructive dynamic in the farrowing room. The Haven provides supplemental heat that is safe, efficient, sustainable and, by design, affects piglet behaviour keeping them warm and safely away from the crush zone when not nursing.

This first iteration of the Haven idea was quite a bit different than the eventual product. It was designed to mimic tunnels that newborn pigs create while burrowing into the nest that wild sows build. To validate his theory and early design, Petersen enlisted FarrPro co-founder Chris Hanson, and together presented the concept to a well-known manufacturer of products for the swine industry in the US, Vittetoe, Inc. After consulting with the Vittetoe team, Petersen and Hanson took their comments and observations and redesigned the Haven product creating something very close to the version on the market today.

FarrPro hired Vittetoe Inc. to build their first prototype which the company presented to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. In 2017, the company was accepted into the inaugural cohort of the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator located in Des Moines, Iowa. Following the accelerator, FarrPro raised money from investors, designed the Haven and funded a study through Iowa State University to examine and prove effectiveness of the product. In October 2017, FarrPro graduated for the IATA and secured funding to begin the development of the product.

Precision-based systems

FarrPro then worked to improve the design and componentry making it more durable and capable of withstanding the harsh environment found in farrowing barns. In November of 2018, FarrPro began trials of its product in development through the Center for Industrial Research and Services in partnership with Iowa State University. The trials were successful in establishing the effectiveness of the product at reducing mortality in piglets and energy consumption versus conventional heating methods. In November of 2019, the results of the trial were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Animals, demonstrating that the Haven reduced energy usage by 50% versus control and had a significant impact on reducing layover or crush deaths. The reduced pre-wean mortality amounted to sending 56 more pigs to the nursery over a seven month period.

For farms seeking to use more precision-based systems, where margins are slim and throughput of healthy animals determines whether an operation is profitable or not, Haven units have the proven ability to drive profits while improving the health, welfare and safety of the piglets. Ability to decrease overall ambient room temperature from 74° to 69°, increases sow comfort even more without jeopardising piglet comfort. Early indications in the ongoing trial support this hypothesis, reporting wean weights in the first litters averaging 0.75 lbs more than control. This means the sow is more comfortable, converting feed more efficiently and making better milk. The piglets are also more comfortable and getting more milk, which makes them healthier and heavier when weaned. The return on investment based solely on mortality reduction and energy saving is about 12 months depending on barn-specific baseline numbers and the local cost of energy.  If the second phase of the trial continues to show similar results, the return on investment could be as soon as three to four months.

Awards

In 2019, the FarrPro Haven was selected as the National Hog Farmer New Product Tour ‘Producer’s Choice’ award winner and was also selected by a panel of industry experts as being one of National Hog Farmer’s Top New Products in 2019.In January 2020, the FarrPro Haven was awarded the prestigious Dr F.X. Aherne Prize for Innovative Pork Production in Banff, Canada. The prize is named after the late Frank Aherne, a professor at the University of Alberta and a major contributor to science-based progress in the Canadian pork industry.

The award was presented at the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar to FarrPro’s CEO and co-founder, Amos Petersen, by Dr Ben Willing, University of Alberta, chair of the F.X. Aherne Prize committee. The  Aherne Prize recognises individuals who have developed either original solutions to pork production challenges or creative uses of known technology,” explains Willing. “There is no better place to celebrate industry innovation than the Banff Pork Seminar and we are pleased to acknowledge grassroots inventiveness in the pork industry.”

In addition to reducing energy required in the farrowing room by half, the Haven provides optimum environments to both the sow and the piglets in the farrowing room, sustainably improving producer profits by minimising consumption and improving animal welfare. The value of the Haven to the producer in protecting profit margins is also what ensures that the platform will be the tip of the spear for precision livestock farming in the pork industry.

FarrPro is planning to deliver the Smart Haven to the market in late 2020, which will allow farmers to monitor their animals remotely and greatly reduce reliance on labour for the detection of distress and disease in animals. Likewise, the next Haven model will administer certain frequencies of UV light that keep the animals safe and healthy – like replacement sunshine. Using machine vision, CNNs and other proprietary technology, FarrPro will be able to track biosignatures of animals between reference frames and send early warning of disease presentation to staff and vets.

Using advanced networking technologies to enable tracking and traceability in the barn will also provide consumers with more insight into and control over the choices they make at the retail level. Increasing the information available at the point-of-sale based on complete transparency in supply chain histories and inputs to production will, in turn, allow farmers to recapture the investments they are making in their animals’ health and comfort – in effect “de-commoditising” the production of animal protein.

No less important are the expanded benefits that precision livestock farming, tracking and traceability will accrue to the animal health industry itself.  The ability to quickly iterate on important vaccines and treatments by turning the commercial barn environment into a virtual laboratory will have important and long-lasting effects for researchers and veterinarians across all verticals in animal agriculture.

With African Swine Fever threatening the greatest protein shock the world has ever seen, reducing the pig population by as much as a third in a year, early warning of disease pressure is more important than ever. The Smart Haven will be able to provide the insight and granularity that farmers need to stop and reverse the spread of pandemics like ASF and to prevent future pandemics from occurring.

Amos Petersen
CEO
Farrpro Inc
+1 319 359 3351
amos@farrpro.com
www.linkedin.com/company/farrpro/
www.farrpro.com/contact-us.html

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