Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Pig Production Includes Facial Recognition and Mood Analysis?

More Than Just Beady Eyes and Pink Snouts
British university experts have teamed up with machine vision specialists to develop a tool that can monitor the individual facial expressions of pigs. They hope to “explore the potential for using machine vision to automatically recognize facial expressions that are linked with core emotion states, such as happiness or distress, in the identified pigs.”

The long-term goal is “to deliver a truly animal-centric welfare assessment technique, where the animal can ‘tell’ us how it feels about its own individual experiences and environment. This allows insight into both short-term emotional reactions and long-term individual moods of animals under our care.”

Didn't Need a Therapist to Know Pigs Had Personality

I have to admit, I didn’t give any of this much thought decades ago when I was growing up on a small, Midwest farm. Our pigs were basically free-range by default—sort of like they were mischievous school kids and we were caring but rather detached playground monitors.

Now that I look back, I have to agree with the common consensus that says pigs are intelligent. Oh sure, they would act dumb—beady eyes, gaping mouths, hours wallowing in mud and rooting in feedlot filth. But they played the game just right. They would get us to feed them corn, bed their hog house with straw, and clean their area with pitchforks and manure spreaders. And for entertainment, they cleverly figured out how to escape and then they’d enact some type of Babe-the-squealing-pig rodeo game with us.

I can picture angry sows coming at me when I got too near their babies (this necessitated a scoop shovel or a quick hop over the fence); I recall hog droving days when we would move the herd a mile down the gravel road to Uncle Pat’s farm (pigs have a phobia about crossing bridges); and I remember when my brothers and I took care of three “runt pigs” that had been bullied to near death by the others (we raised them in a separate pen and eventually watched them board the truck for the slaughterhouse—no Wilbur-the-terrific-pig ending).

I like pigs, but I’m happy as a hog in fresh clover that I don’t have to take care of them. Dedicated pork producers have to be concerned shepherds, economic wizards, and medical assistants. When I was six or seven, Dad took me to a neighbor’s farm, and I watched in a trance as Doc Walker performed his vet magic by doing a cesarean and saving an ailing sow and several of the babies. A few years later, Doc was in our pasture with Dad and Uncle Pat, huddled over a dead 250 pounder. His field autopsy showed that a deadly nightshade weed had poisoned the animal. And many years later, I returned to the farm for a visit and, with my wife and two small children, we watched my brother-in-law assist a sow that was struggling to deliver 18 baby pigs. Twelve lived.

I have a lot of respect for those who put their all into pork production, and I hope farmers, food companies, and consumers will work out ways to keep hog farms safe, affordable, and humane--especially now that we know pigs are so emotional. But I'm not convinced we need facial recognition and mood analysis for modern-day pigs. As Will Rogers supposedly pointed out, "You should never try and teach a pig to read for two reasons. First, it's impossible; and secondly, it annoys the hell out of the pig!" 

Click here for a previous blog about "Pigs That Fly, Drink Beer, and Enjoy Toys." 

Click here for a previous blog titled "A Slice of Pork History: A Wonderful, Magical Animal."

Click here for a previous blog about the old days called "Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out--Hog Style."

by dan gogerty (top pic from and bottom from

Monday, March 25, 2019

Celebrating Norman Borlaug--The Man Who Fed the World

On March 25, 2019, the World Food Prize organization is promoting stories about "How Norm Inspired Me."  Check this site for details, and note that the hashtag #RememberingBorlaug is being used to gather information and post insights.  

Norman Borlaug was widely known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” and “The Man Who Fed the World” for his pioneering work developing high-yielding wheat for areas with limited cultivated land and increasing population. At the time of his death in 2009, Dr. Borlaug was one of only five people in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal (an honor shared by Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Dr. Borlaug devoted his life to ensuring food security for what he termed “the forgotten world,” mostly developing nations, where “most of the people, comprising more than 50% of the total world population, live in poverty, with hunger as a constant companion.”  

Dr. Borlaug was a lifelong promoter and advocate for the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), beginning at its founding in 1972. He was the featured speaker at the CAST–Industry Conference, held in January 1973, at which CAST was introduced to the agribusiness community. His remarks at the conference—later published as CAST Paper #1helped establish the new organization and set the tone for its mission and impact.  

Monday, March 18, 2019

Mr. Roboto Down on the Farm

We might not have a full-bodied "I, Robot" driving our tractors yet, but several companies are developing fruit pickers and other machines to work the fields. On large fruit and vegetable enterprises, some think the best way to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food is the use of robotic field workers, and they apparently have a device that has a "touch gentle enough to pick strawberries."  Mom would have been happy to have one of those back in my youth. She used to send us kids to the strawberry patch hoping we didn't eat all the good ones and throw the mushy ones at a brother or sister. 

Some dairy farms now have those quarter-million-dollar robotic milking stanchions, and a few implement companies offer driverless tractors and wagons that must make a farm seem as if the Twilight Zone has truly arrived. Maybe we should at least put a life-size balloon blowup of a farmer waving in the cab just to make us feel at ease.

Precision farming, agricultural drones, and artificial intelligence are propelling farming into the Brave New World. Eventually, a farm operator will spend the majority of the day at a computer console, and robots of some type will be outside responding to every app command. Probably a good thing--after all, Dad would have appreciated some intelligence (artificial or not) from us kids working the farm, so maybe it's time to give robots their due. As I think back on our teen years as farm workers many decades ago, here are eight reasons why the new tech age might be preferable. A robot probably won't...

  1. fall asleep on the tractor while cultivating and take out ten feet of small, innocent cornstalks
  2. throw a dirt clod at a fellow crew worker who is eight rows over while walking the soybean field to pull weeds
  3. squirt its brother with warm milk from an upraised udder while hand-milking Bossy on a hot summer morning
  4. pound the old box radio bolted to the tractor fender because it shorted out during the Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction"
  5. "accidentally" pitch some warm, sloppy pig poo hard enough into the spreader so it splashes onto a fellow “manure manager”
  6. ask a younger brother to test the electric pasture fence by holding hands while grabbing the wire
  7. drive a load of hay from the field so fast the top bales fall off just because it wants to get to the Saturday night dance on time
  8.  AND, a robot will probably not pull the field tractor over for a stop at the old mulberry tree that is growing in the fence row, probably won't reach up and grab a few ripe berries, probably won't look across the horizon to see the heat haze rise from green fields, the creeks meandering through cow pastures, the red barns sitting proudly in the distance. A robot probably won't take a deep breath and think how lucky it was to grow up on an old-fashioned farm where dogs barked, pigs rooted about in mucky lots, farmers stopped along dirt roads to speak with passing neighbors, and little kids threw rocks off the old wooden bridge on the dusty lane. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto.
by dan gogerty

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Data Sharing to Facilitate Ag Research

Stulberg, Brouder, and Schescke

CAST's new commentary, Enabling Open-source Data Networks in Public Agricultural Research, focuses on promoting the conversation among agricultural science partners to create a system that encourages data sharing--and the cooperative science needed to address the complex, challenging issues facing global food production.

Task Force Chair Sylvie Brouder (Purdue) presented key material from the publication at three rollouts: an NC-FAR lunch and learn seminar for House staffers, an NC-FAR seminar for Senate staffers, and a presentation at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). 

As Brouder points out, it might be a case of “small science” transitioning to “big science.” Much of the process comes down to collecting, sharing, and analyzing. In the commentary, the authors examine the need for (1) developing data-sharing standards, (2) incentivizing researchers to share data, and (3) building a data-sharing infrastructure within agricultural research. 

Elizabeth Stulberg (The Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies) helped facilitate the APLU gathering, and she joined a panel discussion, along with Cynthia Parr (USDA/ARS) and Robin Schoen (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). As CAST EVP Kent Schescke said, "The paper points toward the importance of planning up front to share data through open-source networks--and the importance of agricultural scientists working with data and information scientists to purposely collect, describe, and share data."

The publication includes insights about current situations and possible scenarios to facilitate the process--with an ultimate goal of the publication being the advancement of the conversation among agricultural science partners to create a system conducive to data sharing and the team science needed to address the "grand challenges" in modern-day food production. 

by Dan Gogerty (photos from Tom Van Arsdall)