More than 60 percent of piglet deaths are caused by their mother crushing them. In 2014, that resulted in more than 13 million piglet deaths and almost $700 million in lost revenue. That’s a lot of money for farmers to be leaving on the table but, the New Sharon, Iowa startup SwineTech is working to reduce the number of little piggies meeting an untimely demise.
How SwineTech works
Matt Rooda and Abraham Espinoza founded SwineTech (then Swineguard) in 2015, joining the Iowa Startup Accelerator’s cohort later that year. Around the same time, Rooda and Espinoza added Chief Technology Officer John Rourke to the SwineTech team.
SwineTech’s hardware consists of a box with a microphone, computer and a strap that sows wear. When the microphone picks up the cries of a piglet being crushed, the device strapped to the sow starts to vibrate. If she doesn’t move, it delivers a shock similar to one anti-barking collars give dogs.
“Pigs are smart,” Rourke said. “We can use it to train the pigs. They learn that the vibration means a shock is coming, but the desire is that the vibration alone will get her to stand up. It’s really just meant to startle her and get her to move.”
The problem is, pigs squeal for a lot of reasons even when they aren’t being crushed. Rourke helped to develop the programming for SwineTech to differentiate between a hungry or plain irritated squeal and a “On no, mommy is crushing me!” squeal.
The team poured over hard recordings of pig squeals, analyzing them and filtering out the distinct noises a piglet makes when their life is in danger. He programmed those frequencies into SwineTech’s hardware, teaching it to recognize the cries like a farmer might.
“A distressed piglet has a pretty regular pattern of very short and sharp squeals,” Rourke said. “Pretty early on we were able to put together a program that could recognize the squeals.”
“Pigs are filthy animals” – Jules Winfield, “Pulp Fiction”
Pigs wallow in mud and worse material, which means SwineTech has to be mudproof in addition to waterproof. It also has to be able to be disinfected. One of the early challenges was making sure the belt the sows wear and the boxes with the microphones were durable enough to survive days in a pig pen.
“A couple months ago, we had a situation where the product was being disinfected, and disinfectant got into the microphones,” Rourke said. “We had to really focus on making sure everything still worked when it was being disinfected on a regular basis. We consulted with a lot of engineers before coming up with a solution.”
Wee wee wee all the way overseas
SwineTech has recently started working with a university to put its tech into animal studies in a production environment. The plan is to use the study to confirm the hardware doesn’t harm pigs and move into a full production run in the near future.
Rourke hopes it will also demonstrate that SwineTech’s ability to prompt movement in sows will make for healthier pigs. The belt also helps track information on the pig’s health, which Rourke has dubbed a “Fitbit for pigs.”
Beyond that, the creators of SwineTech are focused on the little piggy lives their gear could save. The United States only represents about 15% of the world’s swine population, so if farmers overseas start using SwineTech, the pigs saved by the tech could increase exponentially.
Joe Lawler is a freelance reporter based in Des Moines.