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Tech heralds clean, productive future for pig farms

By CUI JIA | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-14 09:40
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Employees work at an intelligent pig farm in Wuhan, Hubei province, in November. [Photo/China Daily]

Hogs with intelligent ear tags can also be used as security for loans from the banks because they can track the status of the pigs, which can help the company solve funding issues, he added. "The pigs are truly VIPs at the farm."

In Huateng, hogs are fed automatically and the control system can monitor and adjust the temperature and humidity of the enclosed piggeries. The system can also take care of the hogs' mental health by playing different music to them in different growth cycles.

"The breeding boars are listening to the orchestral waltz Voices of Spring while the pigs that are about to give birth are listening to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet to keep them in a good mood. The music isn't chosen randomly but proven to be good for keeping the pigs happy by using scientific research," Yao Xuefei said while checking the system.

Meanwhile, the hogs' waste is automatically collected by pipes installed underneath the piggeries and transported to a processing unit where the waste will then be transformed into fertilizers for crops and plants, which are very popular in the market because they are organic, Yao added.

Currently, the company is piloting the use of a vaccination robot with a needle-free injection system, the first of its kind in China. The robot can complete the vaccination process within nine seconds when the pigs drink water. The robot can identify each pig by reading its ear tag. The vaccination status will then be synchronized with the other data of the pig.

"Every pig needs to be vaccinated about 10 times during its time at the pig farm, so it takes a lot of manual work. After putting it to use, the vaccination robot can cut the demand for vets by at least 30 percent to solve the problem of nationwide vet shortages," Yao Xuefei said.

Besides being cost-effective, replacing labor with technology and robots can prevent the pigs from getting sick from having contact with people and reduce death rates, because many germs and viruses that are deadly to pigs are carried into the piggeries by humans, he added.

According to statistics, the deaths of about 20 percent of hogs raised in China's farms are unnatural. The outbreak of the highly contagious African swine fever has even brought the unnatural death rate to about 30 percent. In Huateng, the hogs' unnatural death rate has been kept below 15 percent.

Innovation of China's pig farms matters to the world. Because of the nation's love for pork, the country has the largest hog herd in the world and accounts for more than half of the global pig population. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China slaughtered 670 million hogs in 2021.

Yao Xuefei said that for a pig to gain a kilogram in weight, it has to consume about 3 kg of feed, which mostly consists of grains. So preventing the unnatural death of a pig can save grains weighing three times the animal's weight.

"By adopting technologies in pig farms to keep the pigs healthy, China can cut the annual import of grains, which can be significant in solving the global food shortage," he added.

Besides the one in Tongxiang, Huateng has seven other intelligent pig farms in Zhejiang. The company's revenue generated from hog sales is expected to exceed 150 million yuan ($21.5 million) this year. What's more, such pig farms have become more and more common in China.

In Wuhan, Hubei province, another intelligent pig farm was put to use in October. It has the capacity to raise and slaughter 100,000 hogs a year, according to its parent company Wuhan Muyuan Pig Breeding Co Ltd, which has invested 150 million yuan in the farm.

Luo Chunyang, head of the company, said the use of technology has allowed a staffer to take care of 2,400 to 3,000 hogs. Also, the automated feeding system can mix different types of feed for pigs in different life cycles.

"Technologies including the 5G network, big data and artificial intelligence have made the pig farm highly intelligent on its own. The farm can control the environment of the piggeries, automatically feed the pigs and alert the management team for abnormal behavior of the herd," Luo said.

Patrol robots are also star employees at the farm, said Zhou Kehua, head of the farm. "They are more like nurses. By analyzing the sounds that the pigs make, they can determine if the pigs are coughing. Furthermore, it can alert the staff to check for certain diseases based on the patterns of the coughs."

Besides making pig farms intelligent, China has also built pig farms in apartment-style high-rise buildings to solve the problem of land shortages and stabilize the hog supply. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, China will produce about 55 million metric tons of pork by 2025 and the output value of China's hog farming industry is expected to reach 1.5 trillion yuan.

A 26-story building on the outskirts of Ezhou, Hubei, has become the biggest single-building pig farm in the world, with a capacity to raise and slaughter 1.2 million hogs a year, which began operations in October. Such pig farms have also been built around China including Shenzhen in Guangdong province, Zhejiang and Hainan provinces.

The outbreak of African swine flu in 2018 has accelerated the speed of innovations on pig farms in China, said Yao Debiao, head of the Pig Industry Association of Hainan Province.

"More pig farms in large-scale and high-rise buildings have been built around China and they are thriving. Without a doubt, industrialized pig farms with state-of-the-art technologies and minimum land use will become the backbones of China's hog industry in the future," Yao said.

Zhong Yu, from a village near Huateng's pig farm in Tongxiang, often takes her three-month-old daughter to the farm's park for a walk and treats herself to freshly grilled sausage made from the pork produced on the farm. She believes that pork produced using such technologies is more delicious.

"Many villagers who know all too well about how pigs are raised in the traditional way say it's clear that pig farms in China will never be the same again," she said.

Liu Kun in Wuhan contributed to this story.

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