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‘Spy in the sty’ takes East Anglian pig production into new smart farming era

Indoor pigs whose health status, weight and conditions such as unit temperature can be monitored and controlled through a system devised by Dicam Technology in Halesworth. Picture: TIM MILLER

Indoor pigs whose health status, weight and conditions such as unit temperature can be monitored and controlled through a system devised by Dicam Technology in Halesworth. Picture: TIM MILLER

Tim Miller/ARM Buildings Ltd

From an office in Halesworth, a computer screen is displaying exactly what is happening at a series of pig units thousands of miles away in America.

Mark Nowell and Hugh Crabtree of Dicam Technology in Halesworth. Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSMark Nowell and Hugh Crabtree of Dicam Technology in Halesworth. Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

We can look at how the weight of the herd is progressing and what the temperature is like, and make sure everything is progressing as it should inside each of the units.

Dicam Technology is a forward-thinking firm that is ensuring that livestock farming is truly coming into the digital age.

It is responsible for developing and providing software tools for Reading-based Farmex, its licensed manufacturer of the technology, whose Barn Report enables pig producers to see how their piggeries are performing from their farmhouse or office.

Its latest system, Farmex – Dicam 2, is a next generation environmental control and integrated real-time data capture system for farmers, and is set to be unveiled at the British Pig and Poultry Fair, which takes place at May 15 and 16 at Stoneleigh.

Indoor pigs whose health status, weight and conditions such as unit temperature can be monitored and controlled through a system devised by Dicam Technology in Halesworth. Picture: TIM MILLERIndoor pigs whose health status, weight and conditions such as unit temperature can be monitored and controlled through a system devised by Dicam Technology in Halesworth. Picture: TIM MILLER

Applicable to any building type, stage of production or ventilation system, the new system is compatible with existing Dicam controls and can be remotely accessed from smartphones, tablets or laptops, providing what the firm believes will be a future-proof system for agriculture.

The roots of the pioneering farm technology venture are in the engineering department at Reading University’s Department of Agriculture. Reading University first class honours graduate Hugh Crabtree was a founder member of Farmex in 1980, and the firm is now a market leader in ventilation and temperature control for pig production in the UK. It is also at the forefront of real-time production monitoring in the UK and the USA.

Mark Nowell, who is based at Halesworth, runs Dicam (or Digital Interactive Control and Monitoring) having been taken on via a Teaching Company Scheme in 1990 to develop its range of systems. In 1993, Dicam Technology Ltd (DTL) was launched to develop process control systems and in particular remote data capture software.

Although independent companies, Farmex and Dicam have continued to work closely together to become leaders in the field of precision livestock farming technologies.

Farmex’s very first ventilation system was installed on David Black & Son’s farm in Bacton, Stowmarket, in 1979, and most of its early customers were

East Anglian farmers. Today, it works closely with firms such as ARM Buildings, which makes pig units.

Precision Livestock Farming (PLF), or ‘Smart Farming’ involves the application of process control, information and communications technologies to improve productivity in livestock enterprises. The aim is increased output at reduced input through greater efficiency.

It’s a concept which Mr Nowell and Mr Crabtree have fully embraced, and their piggeries sensors and ‘spy in the sty’ approach is transforming agriculture both here and in the US. It is also a technology which is tranferable to other sectors such as poultry, crop stores or game-rearing. Data management is an area Farmex and Dicam have been involved in since 1996, but now digital-savvy farmers are really starting to embrace an approach which it effectively pioneered. The challenge for Mr Nowell and Mr Crabtree is to stay ahead of the game by producing cutting-edge technology which farmers trust - thus their new hardware and software, and new mobile apps.

“We had a very, very clear lead up to about a decade ago,” said Mr Crabtree. Since then, new players have appeared, so they have to had to remain one step ahead.

“The idea of remotely monitoring an industrial process isn’t new, but in livestock, it is new,” he says. Their other challenge is to wake up the farming industry to the possibilities their technology offers, they explain.

“It’s a competitive market place and getting more so,” said Mr Nowell.

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