Flocking to digital: The future of poultry technology

Flocking to digital: The future of poultry technology

Growth in poultry farming has been relentless. In fact, despite the continued preference for pork in Asia, current growth means that global chicken meat consumption will exceed that of pork by 2022.

Egg consumption continues to grow as well because eggs are inexpensive, mild-tasting and easy to process and include in other foods. Universal acceptance by almost all cultures and all religions ensures that poultry will continue to prosper.

Limited information for poultry producers

Although touted as the world’s most efficient protein, poultry producers actually manage their flocks with very limited information. Today, it takes 1.4 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of live-weight meat, and genetics offer the opportunity to reach a 1:1 ratio. Chicken producers know the birds’ weights when coming in and going out as well as average feed and water consumption. Egg farms at least have the daily data point of average egg production for a group of birds, but managing for averages makes production inefficiencies inevitable.

What would make for better poultry production?

• From a production standpoint, individual real-time body weights, feed and water consumption.

• From a husbandry and welfare perspective, knowing the stress levels in the bird and bird comfort assessed through body temperatures and air quality factors, such as carbon dioxide and ammonia.

• From a disease management outlook, the ability to spot disease or find morbid birds before the entire flock is affected.

• From a food safety perspective, enhanced Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli detection.

• From a food processing perspective, increased yield.

These eight digital technologies provide a useful framework to describe the plethora of novel technologies arriving in the marketplace that can help producers manage their flocks in a more efficient and sustainable way.

3D printing prosthetics

What is the realistic future of 3D printing in the poultry industry? Poultry operations would benefit from the on-site printing of plastic or metal parts when the ones on the farm require replacing. The University of Western Australia’s head of mechanical and chemical engineering, Tim Sercombe, has developed a printer that would use a metal powder that represents about 20 percent of the total cost of the part. Smaller part sizes might take a day to complete, but when compared to ordering and waiting for delivery of a part, the potential to save downtime on a farm could be considerable. Aurora Labs is focusing its efforts on agriculture, citing the opportunity for rural or remote farmers in Australia to come to their own rescue.

One of the more inventive ways in which 3D printing can affect the poultry industry is through life-saving techniques. Reproducing feet, legs and even beaks has already been applied for pet birds. One example includes researchers from the University of Calgary, who created prosthetic feet for Foghorn the rooster after he lost both of his feet, most likely an unfortunate result of severe frostbite. Then there’s Dudley the duck, who received an entire prosthetic leg (including the knee joint!) from the combined efforts of a 32-year-old mechanical engineer and architect who worked with Proto3000, a 3D printing company based out of Ontario. Imagine the opportunity for preserving high-value breeding stock such as parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, where continuing the genetic line is critical.

Robots doing the dirty work

One of the most practical applications of digital technology in the poultry industry is that of robots. There are a multitudinous number of repetitive tasks that robots could assist with. Poultry houses require nearly constant attention — cleaning and sanitizing, collecting eggs and checking birds. This is time-consuming, monotonous work, but it would not bother a robot. Additionally, robots are more precise, thorough and honest about the work they do compared to their human counterparts. An article by Benjamin Ruiz also points out how robots can help from a human welfare standpoint.


The opportunity for drones in chicken houses may seem a little farfetched. There is concern that the drone could make the flock nervous and cause undue stress. To this point, an experiment by Georgia Tech in 2015 showed the birds were not yet ready for this technology, compared to robots, which are probably better suited for indoor tasks anyway.

Free-range or yard-kept chickens and turkeys that roam fields freely would be a better application for drone technology, which could herd, protect and monitor them. Adaptation of avian species to drones would probably require training but will most likely succeed outdoors.


Sensors probably represent the easiest of the eight technologies to implement. This is partly due to lower implementation costs, but also because the benefits are immediately recognised. Big Dutchman is one of the top names in modern poultry housing. Its DOL 53 is a sensor designed to measure ammonia, a common problem in many hen houses. Both SKOV and Filipino Poultry use sensors to regulate and control the climate in the house, including ventilation and temperature.

Rotem’s sensor is designed for carbon dioxide monitoring, which can reduce the negative effects high carbon dioxide concentrations can have on layers and breeders, resulting in significant cost savings. Greengage has a unique lighting system using sensors and LED bulbs to create a consistent lighting environment that stimulates better growth efficiencies in birds and also reduces costs.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

AI technologies have become the backbone of many other technologies. Robots, for example, use AI in the processing plant to improve efficiencies. Through a collaboration of efforts, iPoultry is a high-tech automated processing system first demonstrated at VIV Europe. Automating a procedure such as chicken deboning requires recognition of the shape and size of each chicken and individual adaptation.

Artificial intelligence is the perfect technology for this application. Consider that a computer can analyse the difference in density and structure of meat versus bone, thereby making the most precise cut possible. This is a great example of combined technologies: robots perform the work that AI instructs them to do based on the data that sensors collect. The Gribbot by SINTEF is one such robot that can debone a chicken in two to three seconds, replacing up to 30 human operators! When combined with machine vision, companies like Gainco are also creating processors to achieve high productivity.

Augmented reality

Augmented (or enhanced) reality is the ability to see things that the human eye cannot, using the non-visible spectrums of light, or to overlay information, including data interpretation, alongside what the person sees. The possible uses of the technology are wide-ranging, but so far, there are a few examples of real commercial applications.

Georgia Tech had a student project in which it investigated the use of AR in the processing plant. The application of AR allows trimmers in factories to see how to cut the chicken carcass and accurately remove defective parts of the meat. Two methods are being tried. One is using a head-mounted display in which the trimmer could see a graphical overlay on each bird indicating the best location for cutting. Alternatively, the project also tested a laser scanner that was mounted near the processing line and indicated directly onto each bird where to make the cuts. The latter was generally considered more cost-effective, as all workers could use the same equipment.

Virtual reality (VR)

The most obvious application for VR in the poultry industry is training, particularly processing. It could teach line workers in the processing plant the ideal way to trim meat from birds. Applied to free-range layer houses, it could teach employees how to walk through the house without frightening the birds, find errant eggs and check on hens.

An example of VR is how McDonald’s has teamed up with The Lakes Free Range Egg Company to give customers an immersive virtual tour of the farm’s hen houses, ranges and pack houses. This technology is, however, expensive, and implementation is likely to be slow.


Blockchain’s opportunity in the poultry industry is its ability to resolve food safety and transparency issues. Walmart, Unilever, Nestlé and other food giants are working with IBM using blockchain technology to secure digital records and monitor supply chain management, ensuring traceability of the poultry products sold in stores.

Blockchain can be used to monitor all aspects of the food supply chain, from farmers and producers to processors and distributors. This is Walmart’s third experiment with blockchain, and the increasing interest of other large food conglomerates demonstrates the unique capabilities of this technology.

Internet of things (IoT)

The internet of things is listed separately from the other eight technologies because it is the technology that connects all the others. For example, ZhongAn is working to make chicken production safer and will utilise a collaboration with Wopu, a company that specialises in the internet of things.

IoT connects many of the sensors in a hen house to a smartphone, iPad or other devices, which is the case with SmartPoultry. A paper by Rupali Bhagwan Mahale gives detailed insight into the applications of IoT in farm monitoring with a focus on the poultry industry.

The big data advantage

As more information on animals is being collected, including the bacteria in their digestive tract and how they respond to nutrition at the gene level, it becomes clear that farmers are learning how to manage vast amounts of data as much as they previously understood how to manage their animals. “Farming the data” to predict an individual animal’s growth requires the ability to interpret “big data.”

Alltech has been creating complex algorithms to interpret the information they are collecting regarding the microbiome, nutrigenomics and pathogens, such as campylobacter or antibiotic resistant bacteria. Nutrigenomics allows us to generate information to feed the animal precisely, and DNA profiling helps us know exactly what specific bacteria are present. Without powerful data analysis, there is no way to take advantage of this.

It is estimated that the world poultry production will increase 120% from 2010 to 2050. In order to meet this demand, feed conversion ratios and other production efficiencies must continue to improve. The incorporation of digital technologies, such as those listed above, will greatly aid in these efficiencies and help poultry producers to rise to the demands and meet the increasing needs of a global population.







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