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Monday, May 21, 2012

Saving farmers money while enhancing animal welfare

The new invention is already creating a buzz among Israeli poultry farmers
Metabolic Robots
The Metabolic Robot cuts down on food wastage and mortality rates

Every poultry farmer is familiar with the sight: some chickens grow big and strong, while others simply lie down and die. And they’re also only too familiar with rising grain prices.

“Chickens are the greatest consumers of corn and wheat in the world,” says Israeli entrepreneur Ziv Dubinsky, whose Metabolic Robots startup tackles the interlinked problems of unbalanced consumption and animal welfare.

“They spend up to 45 days in the coops -- pullets are removed after only 35 days. The slightest change in their feeding patterns can make a great difference. Corn in particular is susceptible to price fluctuations due to weather conditions. Not enough corn is left for human consumption. Corn producers prefer to sell to poultry farms because it’s more profitable.”

Dubinsky was gearing up to present his invention -- an intuitive tool that automatically adjusts the amount of feed available at any given moment -- at the 18th International Agritech exhibition in Tel Aviv on May 15-17

So far more than 800,000 chickens have been
fed using Dubinsky’s system in about 20 farms

The patented device, which can be easily retrofitted onto standard animal-feeding equipment, uses a unique algorithm based on two years of intensive research. In 2009, Dubinsky installed prototype units in about 20 poultry farms in southern and northern Israel that set the rate of meals according to the chickens’ age and breed.

“As the data mounted, I built a table for each breed’s performance versus the size of the food portions. This formed the basis of the algorithm,” he says.

The results so far have been startling: a sharp drop in mortality rates together with significant savings on grain.

“Automatically calibrating the feeding rate and amount of food served saves substantial amounts of animal feed, which constitutes a major part of the farmer’s expenses,” he says. “Today the situation is that broilers have to eat large portions of food throughout their lives, without taking into account their genetics, breed, age and health.”

Poultry welfare is an under-addressed issue in an industry where profitability is considered paramount, he adds. “Broilers -- and other livestock such as pigs and turkeys -- are treated as products in a production line, with fixed feeding rates and minimal regard for their welfare.”

Step-by-step interaction

Uncontrolled feeding rates and food-line filling times create empty lines, wasted growth potential, lost vitality – and ultimately, survival of the fittest animals and lower profits for the farmer.

Dubinsky says he has seen up to a 40 percent decrease in mortality levels. “That just shows how poor their lives are. The strong overeat and suffer, while the weak don’t get to eat enough and also suffer. This system produces more balanced eating habits.”

“My approach is based on the Japanese Kai Zen philosophy,” explains Dubinsky, who came to Israel from Ukraine as a child in 1976. “Kai Zen is not about changing a system; it rather aims at optimizing an existing system through a series of small-step modifications, based on intensive, ongoing study of the system.”

“The first thing the automatic system knows how to do is to balance the amounts. It’s all in the mechanics --– this has nothing to do with the algorithm. It knows to decide whether the portion will be large or small, depending on demand.”

This new platform gives the farmer a window to direct interaction with the animals.

“Until now they inserted the chickens, closed the doors, placed feed in the silos and waited for the results. [Our] system has an Internet back office where the operator can see how it is working. He has direct feedback on the chickens’ welfare -- metabolic data from afar -- and can see the rate each coop is working at and adjust it to incorporate expense-saving measures. He can know when the chickens will reach desired weight targets and know when to order the trucks to take them away, for example.”

Fed like athletes

“Like all animals, chickens become hungry at certain times of the day. In the final days, the robot knows to lower the pace of feeding, which reduces both stress between the animals and internal competition for food,” he explains.

“Chickens can be naturally obese, because they always want to eat too much. Their obesity must not be allowed to harm them: Because they grow fat too quickly, their legs cannot carry them and many die early. Changing the pace of growth and their metabolism expresses itself in a lower mortality rate. A chicken moves around all day long. Its metabolism should be better attuned. This will make them more similar to athletes, who instead of three large meals a day, eat healthy snacks throughout the day.”
Professor Amichai Arieli of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, a world expert on animal nutrition, is a great supporter of the technology and the logic behind it. His statistical analysis based on the results from farmers showed a 12 percent improvement in the chickens’ average biological efficiency, together with a 6% decrease in corn demand.

The Israeli Agriculture Ministry started testing the equipment in March. “The trial will take a year, based on data from several locations. They are conducting thermal tests and metabolic tests on the animals, and monitoring meat quality,” says Dubinsky.

“In Israel only three or four breeds of broiler are nurtured. I intend to expand the algorithm to encompass different types of broilers,” he says. About 20 such systems are already operating in Israel, and Dubinsky says he wants to aim for worldwide markets.