Research reveals telltale signs tail-biting outbreak imminent; SRUC scientists working with industry partners to deliver a precision tool to help farmers and improve pig welfare.
Tail biting in growing and finishing pigs can be frustratingly hard to control.
Tail docking of piglets is known to be partly (but not completely) effective in reducing tail biting, but there has been an EU-wide ban on routine tail docking since 1994 and legislation demands that management and stocking density must be addressed and enrichment materials provided before docking is done.
Only two EU member states (Sweden and Finland) respect the legislation and manage pigs with intact tails.
Recent evidence from auditing the main pig producing EU nations of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Denmark between 2016-18 demonstrate that 95-100% of pigs are still being tail docked.
There is genuine pressure from regulators to enforce the ban on routine docking.
The latest guidance encourages pig producers to carry out a risk assessment of factors affecting tail biting and AHDB Pork provide an online risk assessment tool "Webhat" at webhat.ahdb.org.uk/ that is worth a look.
Regulators say that each farm must record tail-biting outbreaks and prove that the farm is assessing and solving the risk factors identified so that tail docking is not becoming a routine procedure.
To those outside of the industry it might seem easy to stop docking, especially if the risk factors for tail biting are identified and reduced.
However, reluctance to stop docking is partly due to the apparent unpredictability of outbreaks, but the latest research suggests that changes in tail posture could be an early warning sign of an outbreak.
Based on this idea, we aimed to automate detection of these tail posture changes using 3D camera technology.
Our SRUC behaviourists teamed up with Innovent Technology Ltd, a small Scottish Agri-tech company, who sell a camera-based "over pen" pig weighing system called QScan.
Their algorithms were further developed to automatically measure whether pig tails were up and curly or held down.
We monitored 667 undocked weanergrower pigs (both sexes) in 23 groups. Tails were regularly tail-scored for injury (0 to 4 with increasing damage). So, what did we find? Checking the performance of the algorithm by eye showed it was 74% accurate at identifying tucked tails (Figure 1).
When plotted over time, it was clear that the 3D data also showed a clear increase in low tails as a tail-biting outbreak approaches, and a decline after an outbreak (see Figure 2, which shows daily proportions of low tails for the 15 outbreak groups).
Our findings confirm that tails which are tucked low, and minor tail injuries (which can be seen on close inspection of tails) are both potential early warning signs of tail-biting outbreaks.
Farmers who are concerned about tail biting can keep an eye out for increases in these signs, and then preempt damaging outbreaks by taking action. For example adding extra, suitable enrichment.
Next, we want to develop an automated detection system that can alert farmers of an imminent outbreak.
Our new project, TailTech, is testing the technology on a range of farm types and tail lengths.
We are working with multiple industry partners to deliver a precision livestock farming tool to help farmers and improve pig welfare.
Curled, high loose, low loose or tucked, a pig's tail posture can indicate if there is trouble brewing.
SRUC research scientists Dr Emma Baxter and Dr Rick D'Eath.