Students conceptualize benefits for the egg industry

Four students standing next to a perch system used for chickens
From left, Camren Saxton, Thomas Sell, Sam Te Slaa and Julia Bowman stand next to the prototype they developed as part of their capstone course group project.

By Tianna Charlson, Egg Industry Center

Iowa State University seniors majoring in agricultural and biosystems engineering must take a capstone course. A capstone course allows students opportunities to apply their education to real-life, problem-solving experiences. The course is project-based and structured to mimic real-world engineering needs. Companies often submit project ideas and work with university faculty to establish a project scope and final deliverables for students’ capstone projects.

Last semester, agricultural and biosystems engineering seniors Julia Bowman, Camren Saxton, Thomas Sell and Sam Te Slaa decided to go a different route and propose their own project idea. The students started searching for a project in animal production systems engineering.

Director of the Egg Industry Center and Iowa Egg Council Endowed Professor of Animal Science and Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Richard Gates invited the team to expand on his previous research with laying hen housing cooled perch systems and work on a heated perch system. As a result, the team’s capstone project goal was to develop a self-contained, water-based system that heats perches. Perches are pieces of equipment included in animal living areas to allow birds to exhibit natural behaviors like climbing, jumping and roosting to sleep.

Throughout the fall 2022 semester, the students designed, built and tested a heated perch prototype and used engineering methods to calculate the optimum water flow rate needed for the appropriate amount of heat transfer. The heated perch design needed to maintain a water temperature of 104 F with a maximum temperature drop along the perch length of two degrees. The team’s data illustrated that the surface temperature of the perch varied about one degree from the water temperature. The goal is to keep the temperature of the perch slightly above the body temperature of a laying hen so the bird can absorb heat from the perch.

“The larger, innovative idea that this project is helping develop for the industry is a thermal perch that can be used in both hot and cold climates,” Gates said. “The cooled perch has already been shown to effectively help mitigate heat stress conditions in laying hens, improve their welfare status and substantially improve production performance.”

Gates suggested that using a high efficiency heat pump to cool the perch in summer and heat it in the winter would be an energy efficient approach.

Capstone lessons learned

"The greatest lesson I learned was the number of skills and concepts you will use on one project," Saxton said. "Going into this [project], we thought it would be fluid flow and heat transfer for the whole project, but you get into welding, sensors, electricity and water use. You will use so many different skills and concepts on one project that you don't think you're going to." 

The students took the project above and beyond the capstone requirements. While some projects conclude after performing the calculations, this team continued into prototype building, testing and application because of the project’s potential impact on future research and the industry.

“I really enjoyed being able to apply everything we learned throughout college and the actual true application of it,” Sell said.

Te Slaa agreed, stating his favorite part was using a creative mind and the problem solving that was involved in the project.

No experience is without challenges

The students faced challenges and had to problem-solve issues that included calibrating sensors, fixing a leaking system, overcoming supply chain issues and more. One of their biggest takeaways from the capstone project was how to effectively manage time and skill application. 

"Patience is key when you are engineering a problem. If it were simple and straightforward, it would not be a yearlong project for you to figure out," Bowman said. "There's a lot of patience in learning all these different things, how they work together and actually applying it." 

Throughout the capstone experience, the students learned the importance of how to work in a group and align task delegation to team member strengths. They also walked away with decision-making skills that will be crucial to their future careers as engineers. 

Industry potential

Currently, the prototype has only been tested under laboratory conditions, but it was designed to theoretically attach to existing cages without removing the current perch. The team is confident that in a commercial house, the design will not need multiple water heaters at the end of every row of birds. 

While the group feels it has successfully met its goal, further research is needed to assess the design’s long-term performance at a larger variation of ambient temperatures. The students see the prototype as viable and able to easily move into commercial systems.

Professional colleagues are key

Throughout the year, various university faculty helped the group by providing advice, expertise and the occasional component or sensor. Agricultural and biosystems engineering faculty Brett Ramirez, Jon Fleming, Ben Smith and Tim Shepherd were cited as key faculty members crucial to the success of the project. Research and financial assistance was provided by Gates. Dr. Heng-Wei Cheng, Livestock Behavior Unit, USDA-ARS at Purdue University, also provided some materials from the cooled perch project and will continue work looking at the animal welfare and production improvements of the heated perches in a newly awarded USDA research project.

"We wouldn't have been able to make it to this stage of our project without the help of the professors, their willingness to give us the time of day, give us their products and help us troubleshoot," Bowman said.