Broilers track their own lifetime activity

16 February 2021, at 12:30am

Monitoring the activity of individual broilers can be challenging. Especially when the animals are housed in groups of thousands of birds.

Scientists from Wageningen University & Research have succeeded in following broilers with a tag on their leg through the pen. This could record the activity levels of individual broilers throughout their life. But it is precisely the individual activity level that can be a valuable indication of the health, welfare and performance of the animals.

A new tracking system

“You could compare the system with mobile apps such as Strava or Runkeeper,” says researcher Malou van der Sluis. “When you go for a run, the app registers the time, your location and consequently the distance traveled. This allows you to show how active you have been. Our broilers are now doing the same.”

Broilers were fitted with a small, lightweight radio frequency identification (RFID) tag on the leg from the day of hatching. The pen in which the animals were housed was equipped with a grid of RFID antennas under the floor. This RFID system allowed continuous tracking of the location of broilers in the pen.

Van der Sluis: “We can now estimate the level of activity of an individual broiler. That is valuable information for the farmer. This systems allows him to obtain detailed individual data on broiler location and activity throughout its life. This data can be valuable for assessing - and perhaps even predicting - health, welfare and performance of broilers. It potentially can be implemented in breeding programs as well.

However, it will take some time before the first "antenna floor" is on the market. Fitting a complete barn with a tracking system with this level of detail is difficult and expensive, but less detailed approaches, for example using fewer antenna grid cells, might be feasible for large scale implementation. An alternative focusing on flock level activity may also be a useful tool at commercial farm level, warning the farmer about changes in activity in the flock or distribution in the house"

Validation of the system

To validate the RFID system, top-view video recordings of the pen were made, to assess both the location of the birds over time and the individual distances moved. A comparison between RFID and video showed that in 62.5% of the cases, the location on video and from the RFID data matched completely, i.e. the bird was positioned in the same grid cell in both observations. When allowing for a deviation of one neighboring antenna grid cell, this increased to 99.2%. The distances calculated from the RFID data and as scored on video showed a strong rank correlation (rs = 0.82).