Date: November 17, 2021 | Pictures: Michael Sonderegger

Revolution in the henhouse: In the future, livestock is to be sustainably fed with grasshoppers instead of soy. The Internet of Things makes it possible. The idea from the Aargau start-up SmartBreed won over ETH Zurich, the Swiss climate fund and investors from «Die Höhle der Löwen» (Shark Tank).

The hens recoil when Christoph Bertschi presents them with a handful of live grasshoppers. This type of feed is still unfamiliar to them, as they mainly eat soy-based feed. Just like almost all of the 12 million chickens in Switzerland.

Bertschi is CEO of the company «SmartBreed», which is committed to promoting alternatives to soy cultivation. By 2024, ten percent of soy-based animal feed in Switzerland is set to be replaced by grasshoppers. The startup enables farmers to set up fully automated insect rearing on site, guaranteeing their livestock a soy-free diet. In many cases, rainforest in South America is cleared to make way for soy cultivation for animal feed. «Protein requirements will double by 2050», says Bertschi, «Nobody knows how the world’s population will be fed in twenty or thirty years.» With soy, the standard feed at the moment, this is simply unsustainable. «At some point, there won’t be any more rainforest to cut down. We need alternatives.»

A partner ecosystem for innovation in agriculture

Sunrise and Huawei have joined forces with agricultural stakeholders to promote the use of 5G and other smart technologies in Swiss agriculture. Already realized applications, pilot projects and visions for the future are being showcased at the Sunrise and Huawei Joint Innovation Center in Oerlikon, which speaks to a close technology and innovation partnership between the two companies.

Huawei und Sunrise 5G Joint Innovation Center in Oerlinkon
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Raphael Vollenweider, who is hosting a demonstration of this innovation for us at his farm in Benzenschwil, started feeding his cattle a soy-free diet four years ago. «For the cows, we’ve completely switched to rapeseed and corn, while we’re feeding the pigs whey that is a byproduct from making cheese», he says. Animal feed directly from his own farm. «Our goal with grasshoppers is to get away from soy-based feed for egg production as well.»

An additional benefit to feeding hens with insects is that it keeps the animals occupied. «In nature, grasshoppers are a main component of a chicken’s diet», says Bertschi. Eating live insects encourages the chickens to dig and hunt and provides for variety in the enclosure. This is a decisive advantage because «Chickens pecking at feathers and toes is a major problem when it comes to raising chickens», says Bertschi.

Feather pecking means that they pull each other’s feathers out, which often leads to gaping wounds. Toe pecking means that they injure other chickens’ feet. When the chicken hunt for grasshoppers, they return to their natural behavior. They do less harm to each other.

At SmartBreed, it all started with a family dinner. Together with his two younger brothers Patrik and Adrian, Christoph Bertschi discussed the fascinating fact that insects could transform fiber-rich, unused agricultural by-products into high-quality proteins.

The brothers started sounding out the topic and acquired a host of knowledge by talking to experts. «We saw that insect rearing was very complicated and involved a lot of manual work – and thought that there must be a way to make it easier and automate it.» Then they just started to build a prototype after work and over the weekend. «Finally, we got to the point where we were convinced our idea was good. We dropped our jobs and founded SmartBreed.»

The three DIYers have developed a box with which farmers can effortlessly breed grasshoppers on their farms. Feeding the insects and cleaning the container takes place automatically. The «smart breeding box» ensures that the grasshoppers mature within a very short time and can then be fed directly to livestock.

IoT and AI accelerate grasshopper growth

To keep pace with low-priced soy production, grasshopper breeding also has to be efficient. When the three brothers put the first prototype into operation around two years ago, the grasshoppers took nine weeks to grow to maturity. By now, SmartBreed has reduced the growth phase to three weeks, bringing farms a huge increase in efficiency. «The growth of other animals has been optimized step by step based on knowledge gained over more than a hundred years. No one has done that for insects», says Christoph Bertschi. Now SmartBreed is making up for this at record speed with the grasshoppers. «We’re able to do a lot of research, recording, and measuring in a very short time. We’re doing something that up until recently would have taken several years to do.»

This is possible with the aid of digital technologies. «Shortening their growth time was only possible thanks to the IoT (Internet of Things)», says co-founder Patrik Bertschi. The networked boxes continuously monitor temperature, humidity and CO2 values and independently regulate the microclimate, feeding and day-night rhythm. This creates optimal rearing conditions, so that the insects experience a healthy, rapid growth.

To optimize the parameters, the Bertschi brothers asked the experts about their experience with grasshopper breeding. The inputs, which were more gut feelings than facts, were checked directly in their breeding box and they were able to determine whether the hypotheses were confirmed or not.

Zur Optimierung der Parameter haben die Bertschi-Brüder die Experten nach deren Erfahrungswerten bei der Heuschreckenzucht befragt. Die Inputs, bei denen es sich eher um Bauchgefühle als um Fakten handelte, haben die drei direkt in ihrer Zuchtbox überprüft und konnten so eruieren, ob sich die Thesen bestätigten oder nicht.

«Wir können das Klima in der Box extrem konstant halten», sagt Patrik Bertschi. «Das heisst, wir können immer genau untersuchen, welchen Einfluss Temperatur, Luftfeuchtigkeit und CO2-Werte auf das Wachstum haben.» Unterdessen verfügt SmartBreed über rund 1000 Datensätze, die es ermöglichen, das effiziente Wachstum der Heuschrecken zu erklären und zu reproduzieren.

«Um all die Daten zu messen, mussten wir sicherstellen, dass wir einen Prozess haben, der vollautomatisch funktioniert und sich permanent stabil verhält», erklärt Patrik Bertschi. Nur so habe man damit beginnen können, einzelne Werte zu verändern, um zu erfahren, welche das Wachstum der Heuschrecken förderten und welche es hemmten.

«We can keep the climate in the box extremely constant», says Patrik Bertschi. «This means that we can always carefully investigate the influence of temperature, humidity, and CO2 values on growth.» By now, SmartBreed has around 1,000 data sets that allow them to explain and reproduce the grasshoppers’ efficient growth.

«To measure all the data, we had to make sure that we had a process that works fully automatically and stays constantly stable», explains Patrik Bertschi. Only against this backdrop were they able to start changing individual values to find out which ones foster grasshopper growth and which ones inhibit it.

Christoph Bertschi expects the growth time to be further reduced to two weeks by using image recognition and artificial intelligence (AI). With a camera, factors such as the size and color of the insects can also be measured and automatically integrated into the control system. This means that the breeding boxes are able to adapt individually and fully automatically to the growth of the grasshoppers. For example, AI makes it possible to recognize the five molting phases of the grasshoppers live and to make them easier and faster by adjusting the parameters.

With the use of cameras, the required data volume will increase considerably. «5G will definitely play a role here. We work with rural operations. And since we rely on a stable connection, 5G is an exciting option

Great interest from TV show «Die Höhle der Löwen»

The idea of SmartBreed can be expanded to further industries. The breeding boxes could also be used in feedlots for pigs and poultry in the near future. The aim is also to breed mealworms, and this is likely to attract great interest from representatives of aquaculture.

The startup has enormous potential. The investors at «Die Höhle der Löwen» (the Swiss version of Shark Tank) have also recognized this. The business idea was met with great interest in the TV show on 3+, which is supported by Sunrise UPC. Institutions such as the Swiss Climate Foundation, Innosuisse, ETH Zurich and the University of St. Gallen also support SmartBreed.

The three brothers have set ambitious goals for themselves: «We want to be THE global provider of insect-breeding technology. Farmers will be able to breed various types of insects directly on site in a fully automated and cost-effective way.»

The idea is also a winner with the poultry at Raphael Vollenweider’s farm. The chickens’ initial skepticism quickly subsided and has given way to their hunting instinct. They make a headlong dash for the grasshoppers, pecking at them with well-aimed thrusts and crushing them with their beaks.


The agricultural technology start-up was founded in 2019 by the brothers Christoph, Patrik and Adrian Bertschi in the garage of their parents’ home in Zufikon. The company sells intelligently networked boxes for the completely automatic breeding of grasshoppers that serve as protein-rich feed for animals. The three co-founders are pursuing the vision of offering agricultural companies worldwide a sustainable alternative to soy-based animal feed.

SmartBreed Logo

Sunrise UPC – your innovation partner for IoT and 5G

Sunrise UPC is your ideal partner for projects in the connected world – from smart farming to industry 4.0. The basis for technological progress and increased productivity is a stable, secure and powerful network for data communication. We support start-ups as well as SMEs and large companies in their digital transformation and offer Switzerland’s largest and fastest 5G network in addition to a powerful fiber optics network. New mobile standards like 5G or NarrowBand IoT open up spectacular possibilities for the Internet of Things (IoT) – and thereby an endless spectrum of innovations for companies.

Sustainable agriculture is digital

Digitization in agriculture is one of the topics of focus within the Sunrise and Huawei Joint Innovation Center. On the basis of 5G, modern technologies are ensuring that farming is becoming more «smart» and therefore more sustainable and efficient. An array of pilot projects are demonstrating the benefits farmers can expect when data, drones, GPS and similar technologies interact with cattle and plants.

Digital innovation is emerging in all fields of business and life