Canadian Poultry Magazine

New device provides a revealing look at laying hens

By Treena Hein   

Features New Technology

New technology from Cargill provides real-time body condition insights for peak egg production and sustainability gains.

REVEAL Layers uses handheld NIR scanners for real-time body condition assessment, optimizing egg production and feed efficiency. PHOTO: Cargill

As with so many new technologies in agriculture, the story of REVEAL Layers can be summed up quickly. A hardware-software platform replaces a manual or more labour-intensive process, enabling much more data to be collected and analysed, resulting in much more accurate (and in many cases real-time) decisions. 

These decisions may quickly improve or help maintain optimum crop or livestock performance and/or welfare, support sustainability through reduced use of resources, and help increase producer efficiency and profitability. Information, as they say, is power.

In the case of Cargill’s REVEAL Layers technology, launched at the 2024 International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE) in January, the focus is on body condition evaluation in laying hens to adjust feed recommendation as needed for optimum egg production. It’s the first time that NIR (near-infrared light) scanners have been used in this type of application. 


“In many livestock animals, it’s well-established that there’s a direct connection between body condition and performance,” explains Rob Payne, the director of poultry nutrition for Cargill. 

“In egg production, if a hen is too thin, she won’t achieve optimum egg production, so producers may overshoot a bit with volume of feed or energy content of feed. However, if we overshoot, the hens may store excess fat, which can also have negative impacts on egg production. In addition, feeding too much food or making mistakes in the ration component also means potentially wasted resources and/or lower profitability.”

For many years, companies like Cargill have tried to get a sense of body condition for layers through extrapolating the findings of a small number of necropsies to the entire flock. This of course means the bird must be euthanized before measurement. 

Additionally, the cost of necropsies severely limits the number of birds examined to a very small number in the flock, usually about ten hens once or twice a year in a barn of tens of thousands. 

“That sample size is not very representative, but it’s been our primary method available to assess body condition and fat pad measurement for the entire flock,” Payne says. “It’s not a very accurate way of assessing volume and composition of feed to maximize egg production, especially as a flock ages. So, we started looking at the technologies that are available.”

Cargill considered using DEXA (bone densitometry) scanning technology, but the equipment is large, and the animal needs to be kept still (sedated) during the scan. But today’s NIR scanners are handheld, easy to use, and once calibrated correctly provide accurate measurements of fat pad size. Fat, muscle, bone, and other tissues all have a unique fingerprint in NIR used in these types of applications, Payne explains. 

“NIR is very suitable. It provides a non-invasive, rapid way to scan the body condition of many more birds in a flock. We can also scan many times over the lifetime of a flock to do age-related body scoring analysis and adjust feed accordingly to keep hens in ideal body condition along the way.” 

Cargill chose to develop the technology with layers first as daily performance data – number of eggs collected from a flock per day – is readily available. However, the firm hopes to develop similar REVEAL applications for other production species, for example broilers in the future.

How it works
The NIR scanner is applied directly on the skin of the hen, and multiple scans are done over a short period of time (30 to 60 seconds). It doesn’t take long to learn how to hold the scanner correctly, Payne says. 

Depending on size and layout of the barn, ideally one to two per cent of the hens would be scanned, but as few as 100 per barn can already provide more observations and thus more confidence in assessments than is possible with necropsy results. 

As the scans are completed, the results are uploaded in real-time to the user’s mobile phone and analysed by the REVEAL Layer application. “With this number of hens scanned, REVEAL’s software provides a good sense of whether, for the entire flock, fat pads are within an optimal range,” Payne says. 

“We’ve so far found that there generally needs to be some adjustment to the ration to help optimize body condition, and we see may see egg production change for the better in fairly short order.”

Like using the scanners, Payne says it does not take long for producers or nutritionists to learn what the REVEAL analysis means and to apply it in changing the ration. The flock may need to be moved up and down a phase, he notes, or a small change may be needed in feed energy level or feed volume. 

Flock tests so far
In developing and confirming reliability of the technology, Cargill worked with multiple flocks in Cargill and customer facilities in the US, Spain, Netherlands, France, Turkey, and China.

Payne and his colleagues have learned a lot about adjusting the ration to support improved body condition/egg production already, he says, but there’s much more learning ahead. “In some ways it’s validated the nutrition program we have in North America, and it’s shown us we need to tweak feed for various reasons,” Payne says. “The findings from the other parts of the world are very similar.”

Specifically, Payne first explains that most research on body condition has focussed on the peak production phase of 25 to 55 weeks. “We’ve seen using REVEAL to help confirm that our nutrition program during peak production is properly formulated and the volumes are correct, and I think that’s true for most nutrition programs,” he says. “REVEAL has also validated our program before peak production and how we get hens to peak weight faster than other programs.”

However, Payne and his team would like to collect more data on aging hens and how feed can be adjusted to maintain peak production longer. “A lot of producers in North America are carrying hens out 100 weeks and there isn’t much research on this,” he says. 

“We’ve so far only calibrated and analysed from 20 to about 80 weeks, and we want to lengthen that. There also isn’t much research about body condition in pullets, and we’d like to broaden to that too. We’ve only scratched the surface so far.”

REVEAL Layers has also shown Cargill that more feed adjustment relating to genetics is likely in order. “We already have some differences in our feeding programs now related to brown egg and white egg hens,” Payne says. “We know brown egg hens tend to be more robust and eat more, and we’ve always adapted for that. But we know there are differences in the pullet stage and it appears that no one has collected data about that.”

Regarding housing, Cargill has collected data in conventional cage housing and cage-free flocks. “We have seen different body composition profile in cage-free and caged hens, which could allow us to better adapt our feeding programs for different housing systems,” Payne says. 

“Our data includes about 30 cage-free flocks in the US, and we’ve analysed a few in France that are similar to the enriched housing that’s quite popular in Canada. We will continue to collect data as time goes on.”

REVEAL Layers is now being launched globally with North America being one of the first regions the technology is offered. Payne notes that it’s logical for Cargill to build adoption in flocks owned by its nutrition consulting customers first – Cargill provides nutrition consulting for approximately 25 per cent of the layers in North America – but that this technology is available for use by any egg production company interested in being able to monitor bird health and egg production more closely by partnering with Cargill. 

The cost of REVEAL Layers, including a NIR scanner and the analysis, is relatively low and is less than the cost for a benchtop NIR used for ingredient analyses, which makes this a very feasible and practical solution for most, if not all, egg producers, Payne says. 

ROI will depend on how well a flock’s body condition is kept to optimum, farm size, number of weeks flocks are kept, genetics and other factors. And Payne stresses that REVEAL Layers is meant to be used as a standard ongoing practice, as the components of feed ingredients never stay the same, because egg production changes over the life of the flock, management practices, genetics and housing can change, etc. 

Additional innovation
REVEAL Layers is far from the only innovation relating to information technology that Cargill has recently developed or is now developing.

FlockWise is another development for the layer industry that Cargill has recently rolled out. This tool helps layer producers track weekly egg production and performance. This allows anyone who benefits from seeing such data – live production managers, nutritionists, veterinarians – the opportunity to review and compare data across flocks, house to house, etc. 

For nutritionists, such information allows important real-time access to how the hens are performing, so that they can make proactive feeding and nutrition decisions to maintain that performance. 

    PHOTO: Cargill

REVEAL Layers Highlights

  • Technology Breakthrough: Cargill’s REVEAL Layers utilizes NIR scanners for real-time body condition analysis in laying hens.
  • Data Precision: Handheld scanners offer swift, non-invasive assessments, providing accurate insights into fat pad size and composition.
  • Optimizing Feed:   Real-time results enable precise feed adjustments, ensuring peak egg production and sustainable flock health.
  • Global Rollout: Launched globally, REVEAL Layers is one of Cargill’s latest innovations in poultry care.
  • Cost Efficiency: The comprehensive REVEAL package, including the NIR scanner and analysis, is cost-effective, making it accessible for all egg producers.
  • Sustainability Impact: By promoting optimal body condition, REVEAL contributes to sustainability goals and increased profitability.
  • Industry-Leading Approach: Departing from traditional necropsies, REVEAL captures more data, offering a technological leap in poultry farming.

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