INSIGHT: Minimising Floor-Eggs with an Autonomous Poultry-Farming Robot
Source: Feedinfo News Service
9 January 2018 - In the modern poultry industry, robots are commonplace. Robots feed birds, collect, count and pack eggs. Robots manage barn ventilation. In meat processing, robots perform tasks such as automatic transfer of carcasses and detect defective carcasses. Robots, to some extent, also help increase the ability to remotely monitor birds.
However, until recently there weren’t any robots available in the market to address the floor-egg issue - the problem associated with any egg laid outside the nest.
Consumers want chicken that is free from antibiotics and eggs that are free from chemical products. This means that at the beginning of the production cycle, eggs must be clean, free from bacteria, and untouched by moisture. Eggs laid outside the nests can hardly be put in the hatchery because they are likely to crack and they might contaminate other eggs.
Eggs laid in the nest have the best chance of getting to the hatchery clean and free of excess contamination. Nested eggs have less surface contamination, producing a higher hatch and healthier chicks. For the broiler producer, the result is healthier and stronger chicks delivered to his farm. For the production company, nested eggs mean increased return due to a higher yield of good chicks.
Many times a producer will do what is necessary to provide exactly what hens require to lay their eggs in a nest, but the problem lies in the fact that hens continue to lay eggs on the floor. This can be a serious problem for egg producers and can lead to financial losses.
There are management solutions for reducing floor eggs but there were no noticeable mechanical solutions for this problem. Cobb-Vantress, for instance, has technical service team members who share various best practices learned with farmers to help them produce more viable eggs and increase their profit.
Examples include, training pullets to jump up to the slat level, ensure that the slatted area is the proper height, reducing floor shavings to discourage hens from laying their eggs anywhere other than in the nest, opening nests prior to the first egg to give the pullets time to feel comfortable using them, or providing the proper number of individual nests for hens during peak production. And manually removing floor eggs early and often is also recommended.
Laetitia and Benoît Savary, who have operated a 3,500-m2 breeder hen farm in Mayenne, France for 10 years, grew frustrated with the floor-egg issue.
According to the Savarys, the floor-egg issue accounted for thousands of euros in turnover losses, not to mention the human-resource cost of moving the flock around and picking up the floor eggs, nor the frequent health problems this work entails.
Moreover, Laetitia had health problems and had to stop her work for several months. Further to this episode, Benoît and Laetitia decided to tackle the problem. In 2015, Laetitia and Benoît called on Cimtech, a mechatronics engineering consulting firm located near Rennes, Brittany, to assess the feasibility of a poultry-farming robot that could bring greater comfort and profitability to their daily work.
Together, they came up with the idea of creating a robot to help move the flocks around, basically preventing hens from becoming lethargic.
And out of this idea came TIBOT Technologies. A company, chaired by Benoît Savary, which was established in May 2016 with a clear goal: develop solutions that make poultry farming easier.
“The purpose was to develop solutions that are practical, reliable, and useful for our profession. Within the team, we bring our knowledge of the sector as well as a building in which experiments can be carried out with TIBOT robots”, Yanne Courcoux, Chief Executive Director of Tibot Technologies tells Feedinfo News Service.
TIBOT jokingly says that if a space probe capable of carrying the Philae lander millions of kilometres away from Earth could be launched, it should be possible to come up with a sustainable solution to the problem of floor eggs.
Spoutnic - the name of the robot they created – is an obvious nod to space exploration. It even looks like a miniature version of a rover exploration vehicle.
Spoutnic is the result of 2 years of joint research between engineers and poultry farmers, supported by animal-behaviour specialists. Its design was carefully considered and developed very closely with specialists in robot-animal interactions. For example, the robot is able to move under feeder chains that can be low on the ground because hens will tend to lay their eggs there. Apart from improving layer efficiency, Spoutnic also reduces the amount of time staff need to spend in the poultry house.
"Training hens to lay their eggs in the nest boxes is crucial. With Spoutnic, I have an assistant always available with me on the farm. Thanks to the robot, I’ve cut my time walking through the hen house by half and also reduced the number of floor eggs. I am in better health, my flock too!" comments satisfied customer Edith Touchefeu, a poultry breeder based in Luitre, Brittany.
TIBOT eventually received a three star award in September 2016 for the Spoutnic robot at SPACE by the Brittany Chamber of Agriculture. A year later – at SPACE 2017– Spotnic was commercially launched and 20 robots were sold. Spoutnic robots can now been seen in coops across Europe, the US, Canada, North Africa, and Russia.
The Spoutnic robot
The robot is being used in different types of poultry houses: aviaries and houses with feeder chains.
Weighing 10 kg, Spoutnic’s dimensions are 56cm x 63cm x 18cm. Spoutnic is easy to use, requires no installation or specific configuration. It is all-terrain with 8 hours of battery life and works at slow, medium, or fast speed, depending on the flocks. Spoutnic moves randomly and independently throughout the coop. If it meets an obstacle (wall, nest, hopper base, dead chicken), it detects and bypasses it. Spoutnic moves randomly and independently throughout the coop. If it meets an obstacle (wall, nest, hopper base, dead chicken), it detects and bypasses it. It produces light and sound stimuli which prevent the birds from getting used to the presence of the robot, and does so with no detrimental effect on their behaviour.
“A producer needs to pay EUR 6,500 to get a robot”, says Ms. Courcoux. “The ROI depends, of course, on how much the eggs are been paid for by the integrator and might differ from one market to another... Our calculation in Europe showed a ROI in 1.5 to 2 flocks for breeder hens, 1 flock for breeder turkeys and less than 6-months for broiler turkeys”.
Despite various projects underway at the University of Georgia and in the Netherlands, and the creation of a Dutch start-up company called Livestock Robotics, which has developed a similar egg collector; as far as TIBOT knows, no other robots for the floor-egg issue have yet been commercialised.
Thanks to Spoutnic, TIBOT is currently benefitting from a unique positioning in the market. And with the rapid advances occurring in the application of robotics in the poultry industry as producers seek to improve production efficiency, the industry is ideally suited to continue to benefit from the incorporation of robotics, like Spoutnic.