Swine Cough Monitoring Technology Offers Early Detection and Treatment

( Dr. Ethan Spronk, Eichelberger Farms )

Can technology outpace a livestock caregiver’s watchful eye? 

Clinical disease detection is typically the direct responsibility of site managers and is a function of skill, experience and time spent on the farm, says Ethan Spronk, DVM, veterinarian at Eichelberger Farms. However, variation in employees’ experience, time spent in the barn and distractions at certain times of the year—like harvest and planting—can make clinical disease detection onset a challenge, he adds. 

Continuous sound monitoring systems may be able to detect the onset of clinical respiratory disease earlier with greater consistency and reliability. Eichelberger Farms of Wayland, Iowa, in collaboration with Boehringer Ingelheim (BI), took part in a pilot program to discover how technology could help them detect the onset of health challenges.

SoundTalks, an audio-based technology, detects and differentiates coughs from other sounds in a barn environment and quantifies those into a respiratory distress index (RDI), says Dale Polson, DVM, technical manager for BI’s integrated health systems, diagnostic and monitoring strategic business unit. BI recently acquired a minority stake in SoundTalks NV.

“This technology is running 24/7. It detects the onset of respiratory distress episodes as early as possible,” Polson says. We’ve seen data from Europe and from other placements in the U.S. where we can detect the onset of cough episodes caused by various disease before the workers in barns notice them.”

Quite simply, earlier detection leads to earlier, more targeted treatment, Spronk says. This can result in faster response and recovery, improved performance and reduced economic loss at individual sites. From a systems perspective, this can allow for more adaptation of prevention protocols while improving performance and profitability.

What is Cough Monitoring Technology?
“Our goal at Eichelberger Farms was to evaluate cough monitoring technology to see how it could fit not only swine production, but also our system,” Spronk says. “The first step was understanding the ability and limitations of the tool itself. The next step was helping improve the technology. We all realize version one of technology is never the final product and probably doesn’t solve the challenge at hand.”

Spronk used cough monitors that were obtained and installed in a 2,400-head wean-to-finish barn. A respiratory distress index (RDI) was continuously generated from recorded sound files and uploaded to a cloud database, Spronk says. 

RDIs were continuously monitored and alerts were automatically sent to predetermined personnel when the system detected a significant rise in RDI. When an RDI alert was generated, diagnostic samples were collected and tested by PCR for PRRS, IAV-S, Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae, PCV2 and parainfluenza.  

In addition, the RDI data were charted and patterns of cough were categorized. For each RDI episode, diagnostic samples via oral fluids, tracheal swabs and serum samples were collected and tested by PCR for PRRS, IAV-S, Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae, PCV2 and parainfluenza. RDI episodes were aligned with their corresponding diagnostic results and the resulting aggregate cough patterns were characterized. 

What Did They Learn?
RDI episodes were detected at the site, including IAV-S (H1N1), IAV-S (H3N2), and Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae. Spronk says differences in patterns of cough were observed between IAV-S and Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae. Two distinctive RDI patterns were detected, one associated with IAV-S (H1N1 or H3N2), and another associated with Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae. IAV-S-associated RDI patterns had a sharp, distinctive peak, whereas the pattern associated with Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae showed a gradual, relatively linear, rising pattern. 

Detection of respiratory disease episodes by the cough monitors ranged from an estimated 3 to 5 days earlier than detection by farm personnel.

The ability to detect clinical respiratory disease earlier and classify cough patterns can be useful, he says. With this information, local site managers can better adjust and respond with more timely, appropriate diagnostic sampling and treatment. Further, those responsible for flows and systems and areas and networks can better assess larger scale behavior of specific disease agents and the clinical impact of intervention and control protocols.  

The Three Challenges: Cost, Wiring and Leakage
Currently the cost of implementing this version of the technology across more barns would be challenging because it was in the early stages of development for the initial evaluation projects. In this development state, the cough monitor technology was provided to Eichelberger Farms by BI at no cost, Polson says. 

Spronk says another challenge is that each cough monitor requires 110v connections, which can be overcome by routing some extension cords. 
The third challenge Spronk identified is removing the boxes when they clean the building. The monitors are in sealed boxes, but if one leaked, it would be costly, so they took the time to remove them. Though the development version was designed to be and can be left in the barn during washing and disinfection, Polson adds, the microphones should not be sprayed directly with a power washer. 

“Improvements in durability will alleviate this concern,” Spronk says. 

The next generation of the SoundTalks technology that addresses these challenges is now being evaluated on some initial farms in the US, Europe, Asia and is expected to be introduced this year, Polson adds.  


(l to r): Boehringer Ingelheim SoundTalks Gen2 Monitor, Gateway, Dashboard and App

Fine Tune Diagnostics and Medical Protocols
There’s no question that this technology can yield valuable information on tracking cough patterns and potentially help direct treatment protocols, Spronk says. 

“As the technology continues to improve and become more economical, it could help fine tune diagnostics and medication protocols, potentially reducing the use of antibiotics and helping producers improve ROI on disease control programs,” he says.

He believes it could also be used to map disease pressure around a sow farm to determine when to emphasize biosecurity or modify vaccine protocols.

It may also be useful in off-site gilt developing units where missing a cough occurrence on gilts brought into the farm from an outside source could have a greater impact. 

However, it still needs some improvements before it can truly be used on a large-scale basis to make significant changes to a producer’s protocols or disease management plans, Spronk says.

Time will tell if precision technology will replace or enhance good old-fashioned stockmanship. 

“We’re just at the onset of implementing these and other hardware/software technologies and putting them into systems,” Polson says. “Ask me in two years how it changes producers’ lives and operations. We know the potential value to producers is substantial – but we need to see if the value expected is the value delivered. Given the nature of these technologies, their value really can’t be adequately assessed in a traditional experimental setting, they need to be put to use in an operational setting to assess their value to producer’s businesses.” 

Related Articles:

Company News: Boehringer Ingelheim, Diamond V