AgriFutures™ Chicken Meat Program researcher spotlight: Dr Cheryl McCarthy


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University of Southern Queensland (USQ) mechatronic engineer Dr Cheryl McCarthy is researching a new way to detect chicken welfare using machine vision, a camera technology with artificial intelligence akin to face recognition. The research is the first of its kind in Australia, and has been the subject of a two year project, to date, funded by AgriFutures™ Chicken Meat Program.

Photo credit: USQ Photograph


Chicken sheds are typically inspected three times per day, and as there are no automated in-shed monitoring systems of chicken behaviour in Australia, growers rely on the human eye. Dr McCarthy is developing machine vision technology for monitoring broiler flocks in Australian sheds, to provide early detection of emerging flock conditions and provide alerts for growers.

Machine vision technology consists of cameras and artificial intelligence to identify patterns in behaviours that are not always discernible by eye. The current project is evaluating and refining proof-of-concept machine vision flock monitoring technology for Australian conditions, for the diagnosis of temperature stress or foot conditions, allowing the grower to implement interventions. The project will also develop other capabilities such as bird weight estimations to assist growers and processors in forecasting.

Why is this research project important?

Monitoring of flocks in sheds is critical for maintaining and enhancing chicken welfare, tracking weight gain and detecting early signs of disease. Chickens may exhibit different behaviours like sitting and panting which can be indicative of heat stress, or changes in walking patterns or routines that indicate adverse foot conditions. Current shed monitoring relies on the human eye and current technologies consist of environmental sensors, feed and water use sensors and weigh scales. Automation by machine vision technology has the potential to reduce labour costs, human error and provide real-time feedback.

This proof-of-concept data-rich sensing technology will complement existing shed monitoring technologies and routine inspections by farm staff, by performing automated analysis of bird behaviour and appearance. In addition to monitoring behaviours, dimensional measurements of bird size can be obtained from video images, to assist with forecasting, as well as detecting anomalies in bird appearance, feather conditions and lesions.


Why did you get involved in the project?

I have been conducting machine vision research in cropping industries, for example camera-based weed detection and spot spray and daily monitoring of broadacre crops, and saw that there were opportunities for such monitoring and detection technologies to be further developed and applied for monitoring livestock. The chicken meat industry has been embracing of new agricultural technologies, there is a lot of interest from growers and there is great potential for step change by development of automated machine vision monitoring technology.

How will this research benefit the Chicken Meat industry? Are there any learnings beyond this industry?

The machine vision technology has potential to enhance broiler flock health, resulting in lower stress and lower disease, and positive implications for productivity, product quality and food safety. Once adopted, the technology has potential to provide evidence-based measures to maintain social licence which is increasingly important with a great focus on animal welfare by the community.

The project will develop cost-effective technology that is low maintenance and intended to be transferrable to different shed environments. The project has been monitoring broiler chickens in controlled conditions as well as on commercial farms, to make sure that systems are applicable to the broader industry. Machine vision technology for monitoring flocks in commercial conditions is potentially applicable to other indoor and outdoor housing systems, and other livestock industries.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

Agriculture is a fundamental industry and is a great industry to work in from a vast number of disciplines. My background is in mechatronic engineering. My project has involved working with animal scientists, vets and growers, as well as other engineering and science disciplines and field support in our project team, and everyone’s skills are required to contribute to state-of-the-art technology and best outcomes for industry.

Listen to Dr McCarthy’s recent interview on ABC Southern Queensland.

Read more about AgriFutures™ Chicken Meat Program

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