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Learning Pig Health and Welfare Virtually

by 5m Editor
17 July 2009, at 12:00am

Learning what can go wrong on a pig farm and how to cope with outbreaks of sickness is an essential part of production management, writes ThePigSite senior editor, Chris Harris.

Walking the pens game
When you make a game of it as well, then the chore can become more pleasurable.

Animal health company Pfizer launched their "Virtual Walking the Pens" game on their webs ite in time for the World Pork Expo in Des Moines at the beginning of June.

The game, which offers simulation scenarios in which animals show symptoms of illness or other problems, offers the pig farmer, vet or farm hand the chance to test their skill at spotting symptoms and dealing with them in order to ensure minimum damage to the herd and farm profits.

Needless to say that during the launch demonstration at the expo, some of the best players were the sons and daughters of the pig farmers.

Players are placed in a barn situation where they are asked to make decisions and shows them how their actions regarding pig care will affect the entire virtual barn. Producers will make decisions based on 24 virtual pigs as they walk the simulated pens.

The decisions the plays take will be projected across a 2,400 pig population to see how they affect the barn's profitability.

The players have to make choices about feed, water, group and individual pig health issues based on their observations of the virtual pigs and they have access to a virtual veterinarian, who provides advice based on symptoms described by the producer.

The score can be affected by the player's choice to act on the advice or not.

"Virtual Walking the Pens" is intended to show producers how taking time to care for individual pigs could improve their bottom line.

Allowing producers to visualize the cause and affect in a virtual setting can help motivate them to apply the simulated practices to each real operation.

The simulation lets players compete nationwide, but Pfizer Animal Health sales representatives can help set up the competition within individual systems as well. Each month a new scenario is presented and producers are encouraged to play as often as they want to improve their score.

Pfizer had created scenarios for 10 virtual situations that are being rolled out each month. The virtual game is now in its second scenario.

The game is also being given an international appeal so that it does not just apply to and appeal to US pig farmers.

The scenarios are based on common diseases but the diseases themselves are not defined. They include Circovirus, PRRS, Salmonella and Ileitis. As the diseases are not defines no specific treatments are defined either.

The scenarios allow the player to enter the barn, spot sick or ailing animals, see treatments, have dead pigs examined and discover clinical signs shown through post mortems.

The games give clues to the farmer over causes of why some animals are ailing such as spotting blocked feeders or broken drinkers.

Over the months the players can add together their scores to find the overall champion.

"Although the barn is modelled after a typical US wean to finish barn, the symptoms and diseases that are featured per month are universal problems found around the world (admittedly at different incidence rates depending on country and intervention strategies)," said vet Sarah Probst Miller from Carthage Veterinary Service, who helped to write the scenarios for the game.

"In each scenario, the player is entering a very critical day of the life of a group of 2400 wean to finish pigs.

"They will definitely encounter a serious problem that needs action… a problem that could occur in a slatted barn, a barn bedded with straw or a slatted wean to finish barn."

While in reality barns might change from farm to farm or country to country, the virtual barns are seen as a generic pig housing that can apply to any situation.

"We are featuring a barn that provides a clean dry place for pigs to live. It is up to the player in the simulation to make sure that ample food and water are available," said Dr Probst Miller.

"It currently features pigs over slatted floors with stainless steel feeders and nipple waterers.

"It would be possible to feature other types of housing but we feel that the main concept is there regardless of housing: look at each individual pig; make sure that they have water, feed and are doing well; if they are not, take action."

She added: "Providing individual pig care in a herd environment is an essential concept to optimisation of welfare in a barn.

"We need to train eyes to recognise individual problems while quantifying the occurrence so that they can discern whether the problem has become a herd issue.

"And if it is a herd issue, knowing to provide appropriate intervention to the herd.

"The simulation also provides random instances where pigs are out of feed or water due to mechanical or other issues with the feeder or waterer.

"The player must look for and find these situations to receive the optimal scoring.

"The simulation emphasises by consequences that pigs need to receive daily care and that daily we must take care of individual pigs and also think about the herd."

Further Reading

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.
July 2009