Tail biting in growing pigs starts without warning. Outbreaks of tail biting result in pain and sickness for bitten pigs and economic losses for farmers, particularly when infection through tail wounds results in abattoir condemnation of meat. Tail docking of piglets is partly effective at reducing tail biting in later life, but is seen as an undesirable mutilation and its routine use is banned in the EU (by Council Directive 2008/120/EC). Tail biting in growing pigs is affected by many risk factors, but an outbreak can start without warning or obvious cause. This unpredicatbility makes tail-biting very difficult to manage on-farm.
Recent research shows that pigs’ behaviour changes before a damaging tail biting outbreak starts. In particular pigs will lower their tails rather than hold them up or in a curly position.
Early detection of tail biting in pigs using 3D video to measure tail posture
This project aimed to develop and validate the prototype of an automated system based on 3D video to detect tail position to alert farmers to when an outbreak of damaging tail biting is imminent, so they can act to prevent it.
Together with industry partners we used 3D cameras (using time-of-flight (ToF) technology) to automatically measure whether pig tails were up and curly, or held down. Our proof of concept work on one of our research farms demonstrated that 3D data from groups of pigs with tail-biting outbreaks showed the proportion of low tail detections increased pre-outbreak and declined post-outbreak. 3D camera technology can automatically detect differences in tail posture.
What next? Develop an automated detection system that can alert farmers of an imminent outbreak. Our new project (TailTech) aims to test the technology on a range of farm types and tail lengths.
Improved health and welfare of pigs: Reliable behavioural indications of when an outbreak is imminent would provide farmers with tools for mitigating the outbreak at key time points, thus preventing pain and stress from being bitten. The project also aims to reduce the need for tail docking thus addressing welfare and ethical concerns.
Reduced economic losses: Fewer bitten pigs reduce the risk of carcass condemnation at the abattoir as well as reduced veterinary and labour costs on farm.
Reduced antibiotic use: Tail injuries and subsequent secondary infections are treated on farm using antibiotics, and a reduction in this due to TailTech would help address the growing concern over anti-microbial resistance in human healthcare.
D’Eath, R.B. Jack, M., Futro, A., Talbot, D., Zhu, Q., Barclay, D. and Baxter, E.M. 2018. Automatic early warning of tail biting in pigs: 3D cameras can detect lowered tail posture before an outbreak. PLoS ONE 13(4): e0194524. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0194524