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Automated Tattooer

Tom Lynch | May 29, 2015

In January 2015, we started to seriously look at the potential for developing a tattooer that would be automated for the pig industry. It had been mentioned in passing conversations and potentially these producers and suppliers were just making light of how animal identification can be a dirty and sometimes undesired job especially if permanent tattoo ink or paste is involved. Not to mention lost ear tags, or having to remove them at the next facility.

The early development phases involved a lot of brainstorming, first looking at a cable wire to engage our current tattoo pliers to close with a foot harness, then realizing that there had to be an easier way. We wanted to keep our conveniently designed stemmed characters with the lever lock bar mechanism, so quick character change was still an option, but this added many challenges to the design.

As a general rule, piglets are tattooed anywhere from 1-20 days of birth with either a herd ID number or a breeding stock number for internal ID. This changes state to state and country to country as well as farm to farm but will usually involve a premise identification number. Programs such as Pigtrace in Canada regulate that a 5 character tattoo is required, while the US Department of Agriculture and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can require up to 7 digits for tattoos.

Piglets are usually put into a cart to be processed with vaccinations, castration, tail docking, iron supplementation, tattooing, and other unique processes that may be added depending on the farm. The major problem that we faced is having a power supply to generate force to engage the tattooer.

After a few discussions with a large customer of ours, and in listening to the ergonomic or hand discomfort of tattooing 1500-3000 piglets per day, something was mentioned to give our product developers that eureka moment. The discovery was that many producers have started to move to needleless injections for vaccinating, which is powered on the cart with compressed air. Once we were able to determine the usual pressure range used for these pneumatic vaccination guns, we were then able to build a prototype.

Our first prototype was considered bulky with both the mounting plate and the tattooing block. The way a pig was getting tattooed had changed, instead of bringing the tattoo pliers to the pig’s ear, the piglet’s ear would be moving to the fixed tattooer on the cart. Our product development team was able cut down the mounting plate, which allowed users to get closer to the tattooer block in a comfortable position. Then the team went on to redesigning our custom lever lock bar, so that the tattoo block would be as narrow as possible, to ensure the ear could be placed under the pneumatic head (which holds the tattoo characters).  The tattoo block seemed bulky as we have a guard around the tattoo characters to ensure safety, with a small gap remaining for the ear to insert in.

The design of the automated tattooer is recommended for piglets in the 2 day to 14 day window, as we have integrated the Ketchum 6mm (1/4”) 101 characters.  While the lever lock bar is still used with the tattoo block, for character changes we advise to remove the airline from the tattooer and then unscrew the tattooer from the cart, then open the guard and unlock the lever locking bar to gain character access. It is important to lay the tattooer flat before opening the lever lock bar, or you will drop all the characters out of the tattooer. From our extensive testing we have found the optimal pressure to be between 80 & 100 PSI depending on age, and this can be adjusted at the regulator. One last feature to account for different cart heights and worker’s heights, we have installed a 10” slide to adjust the tattoo block up and down. This is quickly moved with two wing nuts on the back of the mounting bracket.

While we are still working on the automated tattooer, it has already proven to be cost effective in speeding up the process of animal identification. In addition we are anticipating a significant decrease in problems with ergonomic issues in larger breeder barns, all while maintaining a consistent tattoo. Whether you are using our Ketchum pastes or inks, this product helps to deliver a permanent lifetime tattoo.

The major takeaways from this new product is that we can avoid ergonomic issues associated with animal ID and that we can create more consistent tattoos by regulating the force of the characters to achieve the optimal depth for a tattoo. There is also the advantage of not having to retag and/or remove ear tags at the next facility. It has been noted that there is an adjustment period to this new method, but it is more than worth the investment.

For more information on the automated tattooer, please contact us at 613-342-8455 or email us at ketchum@ketchum.ca

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