By Tracy Henion
Tech helps farmers predict productivity, health and profitability of animals while improving safety, efficiency
In the 1980s, Madonna Benjamin worked as a pig farmer in Canada, analyzing the relationship between livestock and human interaction.
After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Benjamin worked for Elanco Animal Health – a company that delivers products and therapeutic solutions that treat pain and prevent disease, enhance and extend quality of life and improve animal care.
Benjamin researched pigs experiencing an overload of lactate – too much lactic acid in the body – and the potential causes.
"Our research showed the use of an electric prod – in addition to the abuse of the prod – initiated stress and subsequent lactic acidosis," Benjamin said. "This research shifted the ways livestock are now handled and this need for low-stress handling."
Third-party groups now audit how pigs are handled, measure the use of the prod and how it's used, and observe the auditory reactions of the pigs.
Becoming part of the solution
After 10 years of working in the industry, Benjamin returned to veterinary practice and noticed a change in the rate of sow loss. Female pigs were either dying or being removed from the herd at increasing rates.
"I tell my sons, students and anyone willing to listen: You can criticize an industry, or you can become part of the solution," Benjamin said. "The former is less work, but the latter is more rewarding."
Benjamin – now an assistant professor and swine extension verterinarian in MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine – is working with her research team to develop efficient, targeted ways to track sow health and well-being.
The work is done with SIMKits, which allow for more in-depth tracking of livestock using a computer, sensory camera and monitoring system.
SIM is the concept of using computer vision to improve wellness in livestock. Initially, it stood for Sows in Motion. SIMKit is the system to capture information.
SIMKits use inexpensive, commercially available depth-sensor cameras that leverage infrared illumination to create dense, 3D scans of animals. When used with computer vision, the cameras can detect animal lameness or unusual shape in livestock.
"The SIMKit technology makes it possible to analyze posture/locomotion and whole-body surface changes and allows for comparison data to be built to help determine if mobility or lameness factors may be of concern," Benjamin explained.
By analyzing these posture predictions with sow reproductive performance, this crucial, real-time quantitative information allows producers to make informed production decisions that affect animal welfare, herd management and the profitability of individual animals.
"Our intelligence sensors act as eyes for the stockperson and producer," she said. "With such tools, there is prosperity for all – the sows, the producers and the stockpersons."
After receiving an initial $25,000 from the Michigan Pork Producers Association and funding from Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture, Benjamin and Michael Lavagnino, an academic specialist in MSU's College of Engineering, interviewed Michigan farmers to gain a better understanding of what types of technology they preferred and how they would like it to work.
MSU graduate student Steven Yik introduced Benjamin to Daniel Morris, associate professor in the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who was a co-advisor for Yik's master's program.
"Steven and I spent many mornings traveling to farms, leaving East Lansing at 2 a.m. to arrive by 5:30 a.m.," Benjamin recalled. "It was the weekly site visits that gave Steven the assessment tools to develop an incredibly robust capture system and software. He improved the prototype and programming for the SIMKits with each visit."
Morris, Yik and Lavagnino collaborated on the creation of the SIM program system and the SIMKit methodology to capture that information.
"For an engineer, it has been a new experience learning about animal husbandry and figuring out ways technology can play a part," Morris said.
Moving the tech to market
To leverage her research, Benjamin turned to MTRAC.
The Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization AgBio Innovation Hub works with university faculty across the state to accelerate the translation of laboratory research into market-ready technologies.
Benjamin partnered with Joseph Affholter, commercialization program director for the Hub, which operates under the MSU Innovation Center.
"The technology developed by Dr. Benjamin and her team demonstrates the spirit and intent of the MTRAC program," Affholter said. "It is the fruit of a talented and collaborative multidisciplinary team that has worked together to create a technology with industry-altering potential."
After applying for the MTRAC Full Grant, Benjamin and her team had to either license the product or launch their startup. Benjamin initially didn't want to release something until it was perfect.
MTRAC supported Benjamin and her team through this hesitancy, encouraging them to take the next step.
Brad Fingland, director of Venture Creation for Spartan Innovations – a wholly owned subsidiary of the MSU Foundation – also helped with the launch.
Spartan Innovations has been actively working with Benjamin since 2019 when her technology was the basis for a Venture Fellows team and an MTRAC project.
Working with MTRAC and Spartan Innovations allowed the team to gain confidence, Benjamin said.
"Without their support team, help with the budget, critical analysis of our ROI and connections with MSU Technologies and Spartan Innovations, we wouldn't have gotten the exposure we needed," she said.
Her technology was fully vetted as a potential business by a team of two Ph.D. students and one MBA student who were mentored by John McIntyre, a Spartan Innovations Entrepreneur-in-Residence.
The company was formed with initial capital raised from Red Cedar Ventures, a subsidiary of the MSU Foundation. The search for additional capital has been initiated.
In late 2020, MTRAC helped launch Motion Grazer AI.
"I acted as a consultant to further evaluate the spinout potential of the project into a company, and the outcome was positive," said McIntyre, who is now CEO of the company.
"You reach a point where it's time to introduce your knowledge and your work to a community," Benjamin said. "If you believe it's going to improve lives, then launch it."
Fingland said the Motion Grazer AI technology has the potential to completely revolutionize the livestock industry.
"Farmers will be able to predict the productivity, health and profitability of livestock while simultaneously improving a farmer's safety and efficiency," he said.
Fingland said Benjamin is an asset to MSU's entrepreneurial community.
"I value her perspective, technical knowledge and enthusiasm to undertake exciting new ventures – like starting a company!" he exclaimed.
Motion Grazer AI's initial market will be swine – worldwide sow market opportunity is $1 billion a year – but plans include growing the portfolio to livestock including cows, sheep and poultry.
Brian Copple, technology manager with the MSU Innovation Center, also assisted Benjamin in bringing this project to fruition, guiding her through the intellectual property process and filing a patent, which is still pending.
"You can tell that's why she's an expert in the field because she is so passionate about swine health and maintenance," Copple added. "You can't miss it with her. She's very motivated."
Benjamin's transformational work is one of more than 50 projects funded under the MTRAC AgBio Innovation Hub over the past seven years. Technologies funded under these projects have resulted in the formation of five startups and the issuance of over a dozen commercial licenses to third parties. The program is jointly supported by MSU and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, with funds provided by the Michigan Strategic Fund.