A project led by IGFS and ECIT has been awarded $310,738 for research towards intelligent welfare monitoring of broiler chickens.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and McDonald’s have announced Professor Niamh O’Connell, Professor within the School of Biological Sciences and IGFS, as one of six recipients funded in Phase 1 of the SMART Broiler programme. She will work jointly on this project with world-leading experts in video analytic techniques, based at  ECIT.

SMART Broiler is a research initiative that is awarding over $4 million in grants and technical support to develop automated monitoring tools that precisely assess chicken welfare.

Prof O’Connell, in partnership with NI-based poultry producer Moy Park, will use the funding to develop a vision-based system that leverages novel crowd analysis research and applies it to the tracking and behavioural analysis of a flock of chickens. This will enable researchers to monitor large numbers of birds, track their activity patterns and gather welfare indicators such as gait, feather cleanliness and incidents of play behaviour.

Speaking about the award, Prof O’Connell said: “We are delighted to receive this research funding. Using vision-based technologies to monitor animal behaviour offers enormous opportunities to the agri-food sector.  Working with Moy Park, this project will trial the technology with poultry, and will help us better understand how the birds engage with their environment and each other.  We’re particularly interested in indicators of positive emotion or ‘happiness’ such as play.”

Prof O’Connell conducts farm-animal health and welfare research and has specific expertise in applied, on-farm work.  One of her research themes focuses on the welfare of poultry, and in particular, on helping to design optimum housing environments for farmed chickens.

Dr Paul Miller, Research Director of Security Intelligence at the ECIT institute said: “We are delighted to get involved in a new multi-disciplinary research effort which brings together the animal behavioural scientists in IGFS with the technologists working in ECIT.  Our video analytics research has been focused on enhancing resilience of large crowds of people found in, for example, a sports stadium or a railway station.  Now we will adapt our work to understand the behaviour of a flock of birds. This will be very challenging, but the insights gathered will enable Professor O’Connell’s team to design better environments for rearing birds.”

Ursula Lavery, Technical and R&D Director Europe at Moy Park said: “We are passionate about understanding our birds even more and are excited to continue our work in partnership with Prof O’Connell and the QUB team. This project offers the potential to really bring a step change in how we measure the positive welfare indicators of our birds.”

Current methods for assessing chicken welfare on farm often rely on human observation, which may be subjective and result in delayed intervention. SMART Broiler is developing automated sensors, monitoring, analysis and reporting technologies to objectively and comprehensively assess welfare worldwide.

FFAR’s Executive Director Dr Sally Rockey said: “FFAR was impressed by the calibre of the more than 40 SMART Broiler proposals we received from 11 countries, which underscores the global importance of this issue. Producers and consumers alike are eager to address animal welfare concerns. This initiative seeks to remedy these concerns by developing technologies that provide consistent, timely and accurate welfare assessments on farms around the world.”

Notes for Editors