Science

Farms rented 24 hours a day: technology at the service of animal welfare

Living beings filmed twenty-four out of twenty-four in one room with several cameras equipped with microphones. The concept is reminiscent of a good old reality show. However, we are in 2022 in a barn located in the Loire-Atlantique. Here, cows have replaced candidates in need of prominence. And it’s no longer about getting the maximum Audimat, but about improving well-being and increasing milk production.

“By making animals feel good, breeders can increase productivity by 20%,” says Quentin Garnier, manager and co-founder of AIherd startup in Nantes. “Today, this is their biggest leverage for economic growth.” And in order to lead their cattle to nirvana, they do not hesitate to equip themselves with more and more sophisticated systems.

The one sold by AIherd is based on artificial intelligence (AI) capable of deciphering images in real time. On the screen of his computer, Quentin Garnier shows us the algorithms in action: next to each cow identified by the camera, colored capsules indicate a certain state. Here is an animal in heat. There’s another one with a limp. “With a tool like this, we can identify problems that farmers face very early. No need for infrared technology or animal weighing. Enough AI work,” explains the entrepreneur.

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Predict pathologies

Cattle are not the only ones subjected to scrutiny in this way. Image analysis is also used in pig and chicken farms. “In collaboration with the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae), we have developed a monitoring system for individual chickens. We calculate indicators of well-being taking into account nutrition, environment, health and behavior. translates into one or more criteria: number of feeders and pipettes available, surface area per animal, etc.,” says Pauline Krich, Precision Breeding Project Manager at the Poultry, Rabbit and Fisheries Institute of Technology.

Artificial intelligence used in animal management is also aimed at predicting the occurrence of diseases. “Using simple microphones, we can already identify infectious bronchitis days before the onset of symptoms,” says the researcher. True, it will still be necessary to test the effectiveness of this tool in real conditions. But this study is encouraging. Similar to what Inrae did on pigs. “We make AI work with spectrograms, that is, images of sounds. Each of them corresponds to the positive or negative emotions of the animal. Today, algorithms can recognize them with 91% efficiency,” explains Celine Tallet, the ethologist who does the work.

With such tools, breeders certainly open up new perspectives. Enough to make people forget about the excesses of intensive farming and the suffering inflicted on some animals? “In the minds of people, the well-being of cows or chickens necessarily depends on the use of pasture. However, you can find very well-handled animals in a typical closed farm. For example, there are very large farms in Germany and Luxembourg. with rubber floors to prevent pain in the legs, perfectly fitted bedding…”, answers Quentin Garnier.

Give animals a choice

“We should not systematically oppose the two models,” says Alain Boissy, INRAE ​​ethologist and director of the National Reference Center for Animal Welfare (CNR BEA). Achieving a good physical and mental condition depends on many criteria. Admittedly, indoor expression of the species’ natural behavior is more difficult to satisfy (95% of pig farms are done in buildings, averaging one square meter per animal). But outside, fighting disease, weather hazards, or predator attacks is more difficult.

“The ideal would be to have a system where animals could choose to go outside or take shelter according to their needs or intentions,” the expert concludes. It is this type of practice that is the subject of study in France and may develop in the coming years. “We are seeing changes in practice,” says Rafael Guatteo, research teacher at the Nantes Oniris Veterinary School. “For a long time we were more concerned with good treatment than well-being. temperature…) without much regard for their point of view. Now it is.”

The shift can even be seen in supermarkets, where labels have been introduced informing consumers about animal welfare. “At the moment, this only applies to chickens, and only good students give their mark, which goes from A (best) to E (worst). However, this system will soon be applied to pigs and we hope it will become mandatory in the future,” explains Louis Schweitzer, President of the Etiquette animal welfare association behind the initiative.

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Not everyone can reach level A, warns former Renault president. Moreover, the development of welfare entails additional costs that cannot always be passed on to the consumer. At the very least, these new methods provide more transparency. “On television, we mainly see the shocking documentaries of the L214 association. More and more breeders say to themselves: “When you do a good job, you can also let them know,” notes Rafael Guatteo. “Tools like artificial intelligence or robots can also get more young people into breeding,” says Pauline Krich. Caught between bird flu and skyrocketing commodity prices, the profession struggles to make people dream.

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