Depending on the results of a nearly-completed research project, infrared cameras could soon become a key tool in the fight for swine herd health and the protection of Canada’s swine export market.
The project—a collaboration between the Prairie Swine Centre (PSC) in Saskatoon and the University of Saskatchewan’s (USask) Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences—seeks answers to two questions. First, can infrared cameras be used to identify sick or stressed pigs before they’re taken to the packing plant? Second, to what extent can they be used to predict a pig’s tendency for poor meat quality?
“If producers can easily identify sick animals, then they can determine whether it’s better to treat or euthanize them on-farm rather than send them to a processor where they could pose a food safety risk,” said Dr. Jennifer Brown (PhD), a researcher with the PSC and the project’s primary investigator.
“Having a simple tool like this could improve the welfare of animals and reduce waste by not transporting animals that are not suitable for food, all while improving food safety,” said Brown.
The potential for reducing disease in the supply chain cannot be underestimated, she said.
“Certainly, the one disease we are very wary of in North America is African Swine Fever, which decimated pig herds in China last year. If it ever came to North America, there would be a lot of concern that it would spread in our swine herds. It would be totally devastating for pig producers because our borders would be closed and we wouldn’t be exporting any animals.”
When combined with specialized software, infrared cameras can be used to identify high body temperature, which—just like with humans—can be an indicator of sickness or stress.
“We are looking at pigs’ body temperature in two regions,” said Brown, an adjunct professor with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, who teaches half an undergraduate course in animal and poultry science.
“We are looking at the back of the pigs, which is a large area we can get the average temperature from. We are also looking at the eye region because it has been shown to be one of the more sensitive areas in terms of responding to disease and changes in temperature.”
Brown is collaborating with Dr. Phyllis Shand (PhD) with the Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences, on the meat quality side of the project. This component looks at the potential of infrared tech in predicting a given pig’s likelihood for winding up as substandard meat.
“It typically relates to a problem that is pretty common in pork meat which is known as pale, soft and exudative (PSE) pork,” said Brown. “That's the main meat quality problem you might find in pork and it's usually related to transport and handling at high temperatures. PSE pork has a poor appearance and is not marketable as a fresh product.
“If we can identify pigs that are more prone to having that PSE trait, they can be rested longer in pens. That’s going to improve their meat quality.”
Ultimately, infrared camera-based temperature detection will have to work at scale in order to be a true asset to the swine industry. Brown said the next step will be attempting to automate the image collection and analysis process (it’s currently being done manually) so data can be gathered in real time.
“The hope is that we can automate procedures to collect infrared data so producers or packing plants would get a flag if an animal was to show a temperature over a certain threshold.”
“Infrared is a beautiful technology because you can assess an animal’s temperature, whether it be the whole body or specific parts of the body, totally non-invasively,” she said. “A lot of our stress assessments involve respiration rate, heart rate or blood pressure which all require some kind of contact or interference with the animals. With infrared, the animals aren’t aware of the process or subjected to any stress.”
A good piece of news—especially for producers— is that suitable infrared cameras have come down in price significantly in recent years. A sub-test of the project involved comparing the efficacy of a research-grade infrared camera (costing more than $10,000) to a handheld counterpart that is available for around $1,000.
“We compared those two cameras to see if we were able to get data that was as reliable on the cheap camera as on the expensive one and it did very well in that comparison. That was not surprising since the technology is the same, with the main difference being the image resolution,” said Brown.
This research is an example of USask’s frequent collaborations with the PSC, an institution dedicated to swine research. Originally conceived as the university’s swine research unit, since 1991 it has acted as an arm’s length, non-profit research corporation associated with the university but operating as a distinct entity.
“We have our own board of directors, our own governance and are responsible for our own financial viability,” said CEO Dr. Murray Pettitt (PhD).
The hub of the PSC is its 300-sow farrow-to-finish swine unit where most of its research takes place, the bulk of which focuses on nutrition, engineering, welfare and behaviour.
“We carry out public research in those areas,” said Pettitt, adding that grants are procured in much the same way they are at universities.
“The scientists go out and compete for and receive research grants to carry out projects that they wish to do.”
The PSC also conducts client-focused work through its contract research program. The public and contract research streams do not cross with one another, said Pettitt.
“The contract research program does confidential private research on behalf of clients which pay for that service,” he said.
The PSC’s contract program has ventured outside of the organization’s traditional mandate, with one example being regulatory and product development studies. It has also completed contracted studies which have provided data for companies wishing to register swine-related products in Canada, the U.S. and the EU.
The PSC has its own extension arm—knowledge, transfer and translation— which brings its research to the world through print and electronic newsletters, annual reports and appearances at trade shows and conferences.
“We put it into a format the swine industry prefers and can access rather than just publishing it in a scientific journal where it may not get much attention or practical application,” said Pettitt.
Project puts new policies on antibiotic resistance to the test
Not long ago, livestock producers were free to buy common antibiotics “off the shelf” and include them in animal feed as growth promotants.
That came to an end in 2018 when the federal government introduced policies making veterinarians the gatekeepers of designated medically-important antimicrobials. The move was viewed as a tool in the ongoing battle against antibiotic resistance.
But are these practices achieving those goals, particularly in swine? That’s what Dr. Darren Korber (PhD)—a microbial ecologist researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan (USask)—and principal investigator Dr. Bernardo Predicala (PhD) with the Prairie Swine Centre, intend to find out through a collaborative research project.
“It’s a longitudinal monitoring study where we’re comparing the difference between barns that adopted new production practices called Raised Without Antibiotics—or RWA barns—to conventional (non-RWA) barns which are only now starting to implement the new veterinary directives,” said Korber, whose research is being conducted by Dr. Samuel Chekabab (PhD), a post-doctoral fellow at USask.
“We want to see if over a three-year monitoring period we can detect any difference in the abundance of antibiotic-resistant genes and other markers that we’re following.”
The researchers are using “shotgun” whole genome sequencing to rapidly sequence pathogen and antibiotic-resistance genes in fecal matter, manure and surrounding environments associated with RWA and non-RWA barns.
In addition to bacteria—where most antibiotic resistance is found—the results also capture the presence of other potential health concerns to the hog industry, including parasites, fungi and viruses.
This shotgun sequencing process has a potential side-benefit as an early warning system for livestock producers on the lookout for disease in their herds, said Korber.
“We can communicate with the barns and their operators if we find something like a respiratory virus. They could then communicate this to the managers of the barn, who could then take the necessary steps and precautions.”
Although it’s still too early for the researchers to make any sweeping statements about antibiotic resistance in RWA barns, Korber said some researchers in Europe have reported the benefits of limiting antibiotic use in livestock.
“European countries—which have been monitoring longer than we have—have made observations that changing from raised-with to raised-without antibiotics can result in a decline in the abundance of antibiotic-resistant genes.”
Agknowledge, December 2020