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Sowsense: Piglet-crushing Prevention

Sowsense is a 4-part system designed to prevent piglet crushing by sows (mother pigs) on outdoor farms during the first crucial 72 hours of a piglet’s life.

What it does

Mother pigs often flop down onto their sides to feed their young, regularly trapping new born piglets underneath. Sowsense works by using sensory technology to increase piglet survival rates and train the sow to prevent further crushings, benefiting farmers.

Your inspiration

Like myself, consumers are questioning pig farming intensification and its effect on their welfare. With costs increasing and welfare regulations getting tougher due to consumer demand, NZ pig farmers are withdrawing from the industry as they struggle to find alternatives to systems like dry sow stalls that have now been banned. NZ Pork production is dropping steadily, and breeding programs are now producing bigger pigs that produce larger litters of piglets; resulting in 18% of piglets being crushed or suffocated by large sows on outdoor farms. Consequently, farmers are suffering economically with loss of potential pork to market.

How it works

Pressure sensors in the Sowsense coat activate by a tilt sensor when the sow rolls onto her side to feed her young and are coded to recognise the signature pressure and thermal relations of a piglet when trapped. Once a piglet is detected, an alarm ear tag startles the sow by emitting a high-pitched noise (equivalent of an electric shock) which makes her get off the trapped piglet, allowing it to escape to safety. This will be repeated and intensified 3 times if the sow does not respond before an alert if sent to the farmer. Over time the sow will learn to associate the noise with a piglet underneath and train her to be aware of where her babies are before she lies down. The coat covers main squashing areas, especially the shoulder where most occur. An app allows the farmer to track, record and predict aspects of the pig herd and receive alerts. An beacon bounces signals between devices using long range Bluetooth if the farm is not in range of cellphone signal.

Design process

The design process began through case studies, conferences, surveys and secondary research. Discussions with NZ Pork, pig vets, SPCA, SAFE activists and meat processors were undertaken, however, I gained the most insight from interviews with pig farmers from across the country ranging from small scale free range farms with 10-20 pigs, to large scale intensive indoor farms with over 800 sows alone. Using design ethnography, I was able to complete detailed observations of farmers by shadowing their daily process and unstructured interviews in their natural environments allowed me to gain an empathetic understanding of both farmer and pig. This lead me to develop concepts that would benefit both users with a focus on reducing piglet crushing whilst promoting natural maternal behaviour in sows. Design criteria drew upon necessary elements of function, ergonomics, usability and materials. Sketching and model making explored the ergonomic and aesthetic side of the project while making a model pig allowed me to trial sewing patterns, fast application/removal of the coat, material tests and function without causing unnecessary stress by testing on pigs.

How it is different

The current solution to piglet crushing are farrowing crates. Although designed to reduce piglet mortalities, crates restrict the sow’s movements (sow can't walk/turn around) to allow the piglets time to move out of the way before she lies down to feed them. Due to selective breeding, sows are much larger - Crates are too small/cause ulcers from the sow rubbing against the bars. Crates are barren - piglets lack early sensory skills. Although crates reduce deaths, they still occur frequently. Sowsense instead provides a welfare-focused solution which allows natural maternal behaviour in sows. Farmers are able to keep the pigs outside on the farm safely, encouraging farmers to shift away from controversial indoor systems. Sowsense increases productivity and pork yield, reduces economic losses and mental effects on farmers from carrying out dead piglets, but mostly improves the welfare and lives of sow and piglets during crucial birthing periods.

Future plans

The pork industry has been overlooked for years, with design and development solely focused on the sheep/beef/dairy industry. Sowsense is a breath of fresh air due to the current lack of systems/solutions designed for pig farms. Reducing the risk of crushings is vital for farmers, so with further experimentation, the design could be used in full or in part to aid in the farming process. Farms are losing thousands of dollars a year of potential pork to market from crushing; if the coat design and technology behind Sowsense could be refined/proven to increase pork yield, discussions with the NZ Pork industry could lead to further development.


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