thumbnail Picking the pig with the perfect pins

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Move over Elle Macpherson – the search is now on for the pig with the best legs as part of a new research project to improve the health and welfare of pigs on farms across the UK.

The study, being led by Newcastle University, UK, was set up to see if we can predict from an early age whether a pig is at risk of becoming lame, simply by analysing the way it walks.

Using video motion capture – a technique similar to that used in animation for Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar and Lord of the Rings – the team measured changes in the pigs’ gait, focussing on the angle of the joints and length of stride.

By assessing what constitutes ‘normal’ gait in pigs, the team reveals how the system could be used to reduce lameness, improving health and welfare on farms, reducing costs and improving sustainability.

Presenting the findings at the 22nd International Pig Veterinary Society Congress in Korea, Sophia Stavrakakis, who carried out the research as part of her PhD, said that for a pig, a great set of legs isn’t just about looking good.

“Lameness among livestock is a major problem for farmers,” says Sophia, whose project brings together experts from the schools of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and Mechanical and Systems Engineering at Newcastle University.

“Female breeding pigs are particularly prone to leg problems and this makes it costly for farmers when an animal becomes lame because of the time and money invested in the breeding stock.

“Using biomechanical motion capture we are able to measure the animals’ gait – tracking a number of animals to find the right angulation and locomotion.  Through this we hope to be able to develop a farmer-friendly system that will allow them to identify those pigs with better legs, a trait that can be passed on to subsequent generations.”

Lameness is a key welfare indicator in all livestock and the second most common reason for sows having to leave the breeding herd.

Unfortunately, if the animal fails to respond to treatment, the problem results in the animal having to be euthanised.

As part of the study, the pigs were trained to walk along a runway by Mark Brett, Animal Technician at the University and former zoo keeper now based at the University’s Cockle Park Farm.

Once the pigs had learned to walk at the right speed, the team attached reflective markers at key points on their legs and used motion capture cameras to track their movement and identify those parameters which can indicate a good pig.  The results provide an initial benchmark against which other pigs can be assessed.

“Making sure the pigs all walked at the same pace was crucial because otherwise you can’t accurately compare leg movement and angles,” explains Dr Jonathan Guy, a Lecturer in Animal Science and project supervisor.

Newcastle University is the UK’s leading research centre in pig welfare and husbandry.  Although the current work uses sophisticated equipment and capture techniques, Sophia, 27, said the aim will be to adapt the system so it could be used on farms to improve pig welfare.

“The work is still in its early stages but the aim is to use our research to make a real difference to both pig farmers and their animals,” explains Sophia, who carried out her first degree in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Thessaly in Greece.

“Using CCTV style cameras placed strategically on the farm so that every pig walks past and is captured on camera would be a simple, non-invasive way of collating key data about each pig and identifying those animals which are least likely to suffer problems in the future.”

 

published on: 28th June 2012

Key Facts:

  • Newcastle University is a Russell Group University
  • Ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world (QS World University Rankings 2014)
  • Ranked 16th in the UK for global research power (REF 2014)
  • Ranked 22nd in The Sunday Times 2015 Good University Guide
  • Amongst our peers Newcastle is:
    • Joint 6th in the UK for student satisfaction
    • Ranked 8th in the UK for Medical and Life Sciences research quality (REF 2014)
    • Ranked 3rd in the UK for English, and in the top 12 for Geography, Architecture and Planning, and Cultural and Media Studies research quality
    • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) top 20 strategic partner
  • 93.7% of our students are in a job or further training within six months of graduating
  • We have a world-class reputation for research excellence and are spearheading three major societal challenges that have a significant impact on global society. These themes are: Ageing, Sustainability, and Social Renewal
  • Newcastle University is the first UK university to establish a fully owned international branch campus for medicine at its NUMed Campus in Malaysia which opened in 2011
  • Our international students put Newcastle University in the world's top 50 (ISB 2013) of global universities.
  • Newcastle University Business School is one of 20 Triple Accredited Business Schools in the UK