This little piggy didn't get squished

Kevin Hardy
DesMoines Register

The story of how an Iowa college student came to invent life-saving wearable technology for pigs sounds a bit like an infomercial.

Matthew Rooda was working in a massive swine-raising operation while going to school and grew increasingly frustrated with how many piglets were being crushed to death by unwitting sows.

His frustration boiled over one day when he walked into a farrowing barn and found one sow had crushed eight of her newborn piglets.

Crushing is a recurring challenge for pork producers, an oddity of the domesticated species that largely has baffled researchers. Rooda's co-workers were largely resigned to the phenomenon, but the pre-med major wasn't satisfied.

"I started thinking, 'OK, there's got to be a better way,'" Rooda said.

University of Iowa senior Matthew Rooda poses for a photo outside the Pappajohn Business Building on Monday, March 20, 2017.

So, he created one.

The best way to describe Rooda's invention might be a cross between a shock collar for dogs and a fitness tracker for people. Its purpose is to listen for the distressed squeals of piglets in danger of getting squished and send a mild shock to Mom to get her to move.

And it has the pork industry and investors pretty excited.

His product, which will roll out to the market in a matter of months, has received backing from pork producers in Iowa and investors from across the country. Just this month, his company, SwineTech, took the national title at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards in Kansas City.

Rooda's company will go on to represent the United States at the global showdown in Frankfurt, Germany. SwineTech also has been highlighted as one of Inc. magazine's 16 Coolest College Startups, which advanced to the Elite 8 round of online voting to determine Inc.'s Coolest College Startup of 2017.

Rooda says he's raised more than $1 million from 18 investors. And he has dozens of commitments for orders from pork producers.

His success is all the more remarkable given that the 23-year-old built the product, recruited investors and created a company while attending college full-time.

He plans on a limited launch within the next three months, with a wider introduction to market at the 2018 World Pork Expo.

"There's a lot of anxiety. You just took money from 18 people," said Rooda, who graduated in December. "It's actually more pressure now. When you start out, there's nothing to lose."

'We're correcting a behavior that's life-threatening'

Rooda's grandfather oversaw a family farm and his father manages several commercial sow farms near his hometown of New Sharon, Ia. But Rooda himself had little hands-on experience until he took a job at a farrowing operation while he attended Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo.

At the time, he planned on studying obstetrics. A medical school acceptance committee told him overseeing swine deliveries would help diversify his application.

Since creating his device, he's met with veterinarians and pork producers to refine the idea.

He, along with business partner Abraham Espinoza, invested their own money. Rooda relied on his parents and student loans to get by. Winnings from startup contests and grants helped fuel SwineTech, which was founded in August 2015.

At the University of Iowa, Rooda scheduled classes in the evenings so he could focus on the company during the daytime.

SwineTech's invention consists of essentially two parts: listening devices and wearable technology placed on the sow for four to six days.

One device listens for high-pitched piglet squealing. An algorithm sorts out mundane squeals from the prolonged squeals of a piglet in distress.

Once the software detects a piglet being crushed, the device sends a vibration to the sow. It then delivers a shock, about a quarter of the voltage of a dog's shock collar, and waits five to six seconds before delivering a second shock.

The sow stands up about three-quarters of the time, Rooda's testing shows. If she doesn't move, the device sends an alert to the farmer.

Early prototypes used a reusable belt strapped around the pig's midsection, but the newest rendition will be a disposable, anti-bacterial patch.

The devices also help control temperatures, which are essential for newborn piglets.

Early on, Rooda said the sows were startled by the shocks. But the pairing of the vibration with the electric impulse has reduced surprise and stress, he said.

He said the pain is minimal.

"Whenever we use something, we shock ourselves first," he said.

Why pigs crush their young

About 10 percent of commercially raised piglets die before being weaned, and the most common cause is crushing, said Donald Lay, a research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service at Purdue University.

"About half that percentage is due to crushing," he said. "So when you multiply it out by how many pigs are produced, it's quite significant."

A sow is pictured here wearing a SwineTech prototype. The technology is designed to prevent piglets from being crushed to death by sows by sending an electrical impulse to the sow when a piglet is being crushed.

Iowa, with more than 22 million pigs and hogs in December 2016, is by far the nation's leading pork producer, which makes anything that can reduce piglet deaths a big deal.

Lay and other animal behavior researchers have studied why crushing occurs, with limited success.

Wild boars in Europe don't crush their young nearly as often as their American domesticated relatives, Lay said. And it's rare in other animals as well.

"It seems like some sows crush a lot of pigs, and other sows don’t crush any," Lay said. "Some crush four to six piglets in one litter, and their neighbors don’t crush any at all."

The controversial narrow farrowing crates used in commercial pork production were designed to reduce crushing. Sows can't turn around, so there's less opportunity to lay on a piglet who strays from the pack, Lay said.

But other than that development, which some question as inhumane, no real solution has emerged.

Lay was skeptical after learning about SwineTech's product. It's "not very nice to shock animals," he said.

And he worries about how the zaps might affect the behavior of sows, which are already housed in loud and crowded environments.

"They could do a lot more irrational movements and actually crush more piglets; that would be the concern," he said. "They don’t necessarily know cause and effect all the time."

'There's no economic value to a dead piglet'

The loss of piglets from any cause raises welfare, economic and environmental concerns for producers, said Lee Johnston, a professor of animal science and extension swine specialist at the University of Minnesota.

"The farmer feeds a sow for almost four months to raise that litter in utero," he said. "And then in two or three days the pig gets squashed and dies, all the nutrients and effort that went into raising the corn and all that stuff that went into that fetus are lost. And there’s no economic value to a dead piglet."

Rooda's early testing has found his method increases production by .38 piglets per litter. With a value of $35 per piglet lost, he said the $1,200 device will pay for itself within a year.

Each device can service up to 160 sows per year, Rooda said, depending on how long each sow wears it, saving as many as 61 piglets per year.

Farrowing farms are huge operations, with dozens or hundreds of crates in one building, Johnston said.

So SwineTech will have to show a return on investment at an affordable price to convince producers to buy in.

"It's going to have to be pretty effective to save enough pigs to pay for it," Johnston said. "It becomes as much an economic decision as anything. Producers want to save pigs, but they also have to do it economically."

Rooda says he is well aware of the possible criticism from animal rights groups. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opposes anti-barking shock collars and electric fences for dogs, calling those training methods "cruel" on its website.

But Rooda argues that the ends justify the means: After all, it's proven to save the lives of piglets.

"We're correcting a behavior that's life-threatening," he said.