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'Talking' Chickens Make Life Easier for Poultry

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Photo: Carol Williamson

Takoi Hamrita teaches some of the principles involved in her futuristic climate-control system to her University of Georgia students.

Summertime living has never been easy for chickens in Georgia. Heat stress takes a heavy toll every year. But a few "talking" chickens in a University of Georgia lab may soon change that.

Modern poultry houses' vastly improved cooling methods have already helped make Georgia farmers the nation's No. 1 poultry producers. But the houses' climate controls can still be greatly improved.

That's where Takoi Hamrita's sophisticated chickens come in.

Let the Chickens Talk

"The chickens are the most important things in the house," said Hamrita, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "We're using the approach of letting the birds tell us whether they're comfortable."

With the chickens, in effect, helping control their climate themselves, they can be comfortable all the time. That may not seem important. But the benefits are clear. With an always-ideal climate, chickens will:

  • Be better able to ward off disease pathogens they might otherwise carry in their bodies to your table.
  • Survive better, saving farmers the expense and trouble of disposing of birds otherwise killed by heat stress -- while keeping the environment safer.
  • Grow with peak efficiency, improving the growers' profits.

Sensors and Artificial Intelligence

To get her chickens to "talk," Hamrita uses an ingenious combination of sensors and artificial intelligence .

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Photo: Takoi Hamrita

She starts with quarter-inch-thick sensors the diameter of a nickel. Painlessly implanted (with an anesthetic) under the breast bone of three-week-old chickens, the sensors transmit data to a central computer.

"At the moment, the sensors tell us only the birds' deep-body temperature," Hamrita said. "Eventually, though, they will also tell us their respiration and heart rate."

With the physiological feedback, the computer takes over the controls in a way the farmer never could. "It determines, using artificial intelligence, how the bird is feeling," she said. "And it decides what the computer's next move should be."

A Complex System

The system is complex. It has to be. "The bird is dynamic. It's growing every day, so its response to its environment changes every day," Hamrita said. "The environment is constantly changing, too. We can no longer rely on standard mathematic models to handle all these variables."

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Photo: Carol Williamson

Takoi Hamrita shows her students part of the hardware that makes the interface between the producer and her complex climate-control system.

The computer's neural networks, though, can handle them. With digital simulations of human neurons, the computer is trained to "think." It can recognize changes and patterns and adjust to the ever-changing feedback from the sensors.

"The neural networks are capable of learning," Hamrita said. "They can juggle the different variables in the bird, the weather, economic factors -- all of the things that go into making the best climate-control decisions."

Full-scale Study Near

So far, Hamrita's studies have involved only about 30 chickens and a dozen sensor-implanted chickens in her research chamber. The system is about five years from commercial use.

"The next move is to borrow a producer's house for a full-scale study," she said. "We're almost ready to do that."

A full house of around 65,000 chickens would need about 100 sensors. "The sensors would be the biggest investment -- $5,000 to $10,000 for 100," she said. "The system itself would be about $2,000."

The sensors would be reusable. And the growers themselves would be able to implant them.

Chickens Genetically Different

Hamrita said the futuristic system would pay off for growers because it has become so important to keep chickens comfortable.

"The chickens we have now are genetically different from the 'yard birds' of the past," she said. "Those birds could fend for themselves, but they weren't very meaty."

Over the years, chickens have been bred to grow more efficiently. Compared to a half-century ago, they now gain 50 percent more weight on half the feed in half the time.

"We've altered them for growth, but they're no longer hardy," Hamrita said. "We demand a lot more of them, so we have to give them more."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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