China’s internet giants and startups are cleaning up the pigsty through the application of artificial intelligence in a bid for a share of profits in the world’s largest consumer and producer of pork.
Ding Lei, CEO of NetEase, is often credited with heralding an era of internet farming by launching an eco-friendly pig farm in Anji County, Zhejiang Province, known as the hometown of bamboo, as early as March 2011 after his company announced an agricultural push in 2009.
With a focus on technology and environmental sustainability, the Weiyang pig farm received a first round of US$23.5 million in funding in 2017. Rarely found on the consumer market, Ding’s specially bred pigs mostly land in the banquets for a few internet giants, such as during the annual Wuzhen Internet Summit. A 2016 Reuters report said Ding’s ultimate aim is “not in revenue but rather to revive Chinese livestock-rearing methods and to win government and consumer goodwill for NetEase.”
E-commerce company Alibaba garnered intensive media attention last February for its ET Agricultural Brain system, including its application in pig farming with Sichuan Tequ Group. The system uses intelligent sensors and AI to accurately profile and identify each pig, with detailed, real-time information about a pig’s health or birth prospects. Alibaba said on its website that the system helped reduce the mortality rate by around 3%. ET is also applied in other sectors such as apple orchards, but public attention seems to focus more livestock.
Alibaba’s main rival JD.com also revealed a smart farming solution last November, mainly through cooperation with professor Li Defa of the College of Animal Science and Technology, China Agricultural University.
Released under the agriculture and animal husbandry arm of JD.com, the partnership plans to apply AI, IoT and SaaS technologies to boost intelligent agriculture, with the first project in smart pig farming underway in Fengning of Hebei Province. The e-commerce platform estimates that the solution can cut labor costs by 30 to 50% and the use of pig feed by 8 to 10%.
Smart farming also applies “pig face recognition” to monitor a pig’s growth as well as automatically adjust the temperature and humidity in the pigsty. JD.com also said a robotic feeding device and flexible fence can lead to precise control of pig feed, according to Economic Information Daily.
As internet companies reshape the pig farming industry, small companies are also trying to reap the profits. Last March, Guangzhou-based Yingzi Technology said its pig face recognition technology can be applied extensively in the pig breeding, specifically for tracking nutrition, environmental controls, and making health checks. Yingzi co-founder Chen Yaosheng, however, admitted that the technology still has difficulties as pigs are lively and active, and don’t necessarily keep still like human beings would in such tests.
Di Lai, CDO of Yingzi Technology, said that the startup’s goal is to reduce pig breeding costs by one yuan per kilogram, and it will also develop the technology needed for intelligent chicken farming, according to a report by Communications World Weekly published in February.
The PSY (pigs per sow per year) of the domestic hog is about 15, ten fewer than that in the United States, meaning there is huge development potential in China, according to those in the industry.
Beijing-based Gago Group is another startup to announce the use of AI and big data for smart pig farming. Founded by Zhang Gong, a former NASA scientist, the company said it uses dozens of satellites and drones from China, the United States, and Europe to collect ground and meteorological data in real time, applying it in the agricultural, environmental, and financial industries.
A Sohu report from last August provided more details about a solution for smart farming—monitoring the activity of piglets through a video feed, and deciding if the temperature and humidity are suitable for their growth. An understanding about factors affecting a piglet’s activity will help kick off smart pig farming, said the company looking at these measures.
A search of smart pig farming on Baidu.com also revealed reports about Jiangsu PLC Intelligent Systems, which claims to be the “first practitioner of AI pig farming.” The company’s new solution, released in last November, is to allow farmers to closely monitor hogs through an app and ensure the temperature, humidity, and density of ammonia and carbon dioxide are all acceptable for a pig’s growth.
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