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UTS AI innovation aims to improve life for cage-free hens

(Source: Bigstock)

Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have created an artificial intelligence-based system, to improve the life quality of hens raised in a cage-free environment. 

Funded by Australian Eggs – a non-profit organisation in the egg industry – the project allows farm staff to understand as well as monitor hens’ behaviours and any lack of movement in individual birds, which could indicate injury or illness.

Developed by Professor Jian Zhang and his team from the Multimedia Data Analytics Lab, the project was trialled on an egg farm in Windsor, NSW. 

Professor Jian Zhang

The real-time video monitoring system currently features four cameras – two inside and two outside the sheds – and has been designed to accommodate more depending on the size of the area being monitored. The technology incorporates pattern recognition algorithms to count and monitor flock density and behaviour.

According to Zhang, cage-free hens have the freedom to search for food, however, there are risks farmers can benefit from being alerted to from warning systems. 

“The farm in this project that is trialling the technology has an average of 8000 hens spread across multiple sheds, and it’s difficult for farm staff to continuously monitor hen behaviour,” Zhang said.

“Cage-free hens have greater freedom to roam and forage, however, there is a risk that they can flock together and ‘pile-up’, which can result in hens being smothered.” While uncommon, if a pile-up occurs, there are currently no warning systems designed to alert farmers.

The UTS team has poultry and animal behaviour specialists to help analyse hens’ behaviour, and the next phase of the trial will be a deeper analysis of behaviours such as drinking, feeding, foraging and standing.

As Australian consumers increasingly opt for free-range eggs, the industry wants to develop strategies that can help reduce risks and labour requirements, and that provide a better lifestyle for the chickens – and eggs. 

“This important investment in AI-technology can not only lead to happier, healthier and more productive hens but also improve farm management and reduce costs,” said Rowan McMonnies, MD at Australian Eggs. 

There are plans to build an alert app for mobile phones linked to machine-learning technology to improve the system using feedback from farm staff.

The UTS team said it will run multiple trials across farms and expand the program if it continues to be successful. 

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