Matt Rooda was working as an assistant farm manager at Schneider Pork Farms in Waterloo, Iowa, when he realized that in order to increase pork production, he needed to stop piglet deaths.
“I walked in one day, and there was a mom that laid on nine of her babies,” Rooda said. “I was super frustrated, and I just remember thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
60 to 89 percent of piglet deaths are caused by piglets being laid on by their mothers. Last year, this added up to over 13 million piglet deaths in the United States, resulting in a revenue loss of $689 million.
Rooda started brainstorming as a student at University of Iowa. In May 2015 he founded Swineguard and applied to Venture School at the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. After Venture School, the team was accepted into the Iowa Startup Accelerator’s 2015 cohort in July.
How Swineguard works
Swineguard’s solution to the piglet mortality problem is a device called Sound-Off. Sound-Off sits on the draft barrier dividing each pig pen and analyzes the piglets’ squealing.
When a piglet is being laid on, it releases an extremely high-pitched squeal, then takes a deep breath, followed by another high-pitched squeal. This pattern continues for thirty seconds to a minute.
If the device determines that a piglet is being laid on, a belt-like structure on the sow will deliver an impulse so she stands up and the piglet can go free.
Promoting piglet health
At the World Pork Expo this summer, the Swineguard team found a Canadian company working on a solution to the same problem, but using a device to create a breeze along the sow’s sides when she stands up so the piglets go around her, rather than under her.
After talking with a veterinarian, the Swineguard team learned that this solution could actually make things worse for the piglets. The breeze can make the piglets too cold and create a moist environment, giving rise to excessive diarrhea and disease.
Swineguard’s model is designed to keep the pigs as healthy as possible. The impulse delivered to the sow will be no stronger than that of a dog’s shock collar.
“We know it’s going to be safe, and it’s something people already use on their pets,” said Swineguard’s COO Abraham Espinoza.
Sound-Off also will have an extra outlet for heat lamps in the pens so farmers can regulate the temperature and create the best environment for healthy piglets.
Idea to prototype in four months
Swineguard is a few weeks away from their first fully-working prototype, and their first beta test is scheduled for January 1, 2016. Following that, they plan to go into full production.
“I’d say our biggest accomplishment is, in a matter of four months, going from just an idea to a prototype,” Rooda said.
It’s been an incredibly quick journey for the team, with only a few days between the end of Venture School and the start of the Iowa Startup Accelerator.
“We had to jump through a lot of hoops—make a video, do some paperwork, drop out of school for this semester—so it was a huge decision,” said Espinoza. “But we’re pretty confident that the idea’s going to work.”
Meeting pork production demand
According to the Pork Producers Council, the world’s pork production needs to double by 2025 in order to meet the growing demand. Swineguard believes Sound-Off is a solution that will work to increase farmers’ pork production to meet that demand, while allowing farmers to make a higher profit.
The ultimate goal is for every pork farmer to use Sound-Off and end piglet deaths from preventable causes. Starting in Iowa, the number one state for pork production, Swineguard hopes to sell their device throughout the United States and eventually expand overseas, where China is the leader in pork production worldwide.
Anne Easker is an Iowa City-based writer who loves telling stories about passionate people.