HERSHEY, Pa. — Hatcheries are already high-tech places, but innovative machinery could further improve efficiency and animal welfare.
Technology can also make up some of the poultry industry’s worker shortage, said Emily Lhamon, a Penn State Extension educator.
Lhamon spoke at the Northeast Hatchery Conference on Oct. 30 at the Hershey Lodge.
Already used on dairy farms and in manufacturing plants, robots are perhaps the most obvious tech tool for hatcheries to adopt.
They can take over menial tasks like moving chick boxes, reducing worker fatigue and injury risk.
But robots can take on sophisticated jobs as well.
Georgia Tech is developing a robot that roams the chicken house picking up floor eggs. That role could be particularly helpful for aging farmers, Lhamon said.
This robot also turns the poultry litter and collects dead birds — nudging them first to make sure they’re not just resting.
Still, farms may not want to become too reliant on robots or the birds may become uncomfortable with human presence.
“When you go in to catch them, they’re going to go through the roof,” Lhamon said.
Robots usually need an internet connection to work properly, and they require regular maintenance, she said.
They can also use artificial intelligence to replace human decision making.
One company is refining a machine for determining the sex of embryos. It takes a picture of the egg, locates the air cell, laser-cuts a small hole in the shell, lifts a piece of shell, uses light absorption sensing to sex the chick, and reseals the shell.
The price for this machinery is huge, but a similar, less invasive strategy would be intriguing.
“You’re cutting a hole in an egg that needs structural integrity,” Lhamon said. “That worries me a lot.”
Speaking of structural integrity, some poultry companies are using 3-D printing to make replacement machinery parts on demand.
Most 3-D printing machines use plastic, though some do use metal.
“Obviously (there’s) a high cost to that. However, if you have parts breaking down constantly, if you need parts replaced, or you have a long time to shipment for those parts, maybe this is something we should invest in,” Lhamon said.
Veterinarians are also using 3-D printing to create prosthetic legs for birds.
That wouldn’t be cost-effective for production birds, but it might be worth the money to keep valuable pedigree birds alive.
Hatcheries already use a lot of sensors to track things like temperature and humidity, but there’s room to use them even more.
If the egg truck shakes a lot, some of the hatchery eggs can be ruined. Vibration sensors could tell if changes are needed, Lhamon said.
Drones aren’t a great fit inside poultry houses — the birds would see them as predators — but they could help plan routes for poultry trucks during bad weather.
Drones could also monitor whether birds in houses with outdoor access are actually going outside, Lhamon said.
Preserving animal welfare at the hatchery involves both technology and human efforts.
Birds are at hatcheries for only a short time, but the facilities have the most concentrated populations of poultry.
“What’s done there affects a large amount of birds, either positively or negatively,” said Hope Kassube, a Penn State Extension educator.
There are plenty of points at the hatchery where the chicks could feel fear or pain, and staff must try to mitigate those risks.
One area of concern, certainly, is beak trimming, which is done to reduce pecking injury and cannibalism.
One technique, no longer common, uses a very hot blade to burn and cauterize the beak tip. This process causes short-term pain and can leave an open wound.
These days, focused infrared energy is often used to kill the beak tip tissue, causing the material to slough off in a week or two.
The infrared method entails little risk of an open wound, but the dosage needs to be fine-tuned based on a number of factors, Kassube said.
Euthanasia of the sick, injured and unwanted male chicks is another inescapable part of hatchery work that draws animal welfare concerns.
The method of killing should be quick, reliable, easy to use and safe for the staff to use.
Maceration — putting the chicks into a machine with spinning blades — probably results in the quickest death and requires minimal handling of the chicks, but “it doesn’t look good,” Kassube said.
As a result, many hatcheries are looking for alternatives, such as carbon dioxide suffocation.
Hatcheries must have a protocol for the number of chicks in the euthanasia chamber. Chicks should die from the gas, not because they are suffocating each other, Kassube said.
Chicks are less susceptible to gas than older birds, so operators need to make sure they put enough gas in the chamber, she said.
Penn State launched the hatchery conference this year to address the unique workforce needs facing this sector of poultry production.
Hatchery employees come from a variety of educational backgrounds, from a degree in animal science to not even a high school diploma.
Some may have plenty of poultry experience, but mainly in the processing of dead birds.
College poultry science graduates with a lot of hatchery experience are in short supply, Lhamon said.
Layer, broiler, turkey and specialty operations all have specialized hatchery needs.
Large companies have invested in in-house hatchery specialists, but smaller companies often can’t afford to do that, Lhamon said.