Thirty years ago when scanning technology was developed for commercial use in sheep pregnancy detection it was deservedly hailed as a leap forward in helping better measure ewe productivity.
But former AgResearch developer Dr Mike Tate said despite having scanning data sheep farmers have always faced a gap in understanding why scanning percentages are not usually matched by weaned lamb percentages.
The Smart Shepherd technology will provide the data to fill that gap.
A collar fitted to ewes and lambs uses Bluetooth to accurately identify lambs raised by each ewe and determines the strength of the mother-lamb bond.
Tate and Aimee Charteris are directors of Four Good Foods and have adapted the Australian technology for New Zealand conditions and flock types. Tate’s last major job was heading the Omega Lamb PGP project.
“Basically, the technology works by having the collars check in with each other regularly. In the ewe’s case it will identify how many lambs it can confirm in the ewe’s proximity and for the lamb how many ewes are nearby.
“The data is summarised as the number of interactions at a certain distance between the lambs and ewes detected, determining which ewe belongs to which lamb or lambs.”
The technology has been validated using old fashioned observation alongside DNA confirmation and is 98% accurate.
In a low-profile launch for the lambing season the developers are focusing initially on the sheep-breeding market where farmers have typically relied on time-consuming visual matching or expensive DNA identification.
Instead, the collars can be applied at 300 an hour and match more than 1000 lambs a day with mothers, saving on the time-consuming approach.
“You will normally fit the collars the first time you have any contact with lambs and then you can follow them and the ewe.
“Typically, that will be 48 hours to get a match.”
Smart Shepherd has built up stocks of collars that can be leased to farmers over lambing season, given the need for them is for such a relatively short period.
The exciting potential for the technology lies in being able to apply the data collected on a ewe’s mothering capability to other data already captured by farmers – namely ante-natal scanning and weaning data including numbers per ewe and lamb weight.
“The analogy to me is that with just scanning data we have been stuck in third gear a bit. We know what a ewe carries during pregnancy but not what she mothers through to final weaning figures.
“The collar data takes us to fourth gear. You can link it to EID data for the ewe and lamb so it lets us identify those individual ewes that are good mothers, the ones that feed their lambs well and get both the weights and numbers to weaning.”
Charteris and Tate are developing a proof of concept for the technology to be used for commercial sheep farmers on larger scale. They now have the support of a $40,000 grant from Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibres Futures Fund.
Tate can see the potential for the data harvested on big commercial flocks to be the foundation for developing a commercial ewe production index, similar to a PW for dairy cows. It can be based on parameters like mothering ability, condition score, lamb weight at weaning, growth rates and percentages.
It would also be valuable in determining which two-tooths exhibit good, bad or indifferent mothering traits and, therefore, which ones will be kept for breeding.
“Typically, experience has shown that if a two-tooth is an unexceptional mother then she is unlikely to be any better as a breeding ewe.”
The flip side is that large amounts of data generated by commercial flocks will enable the super mums in the flock to be identified and given more attention pre and post-lambing.
Tate said NZ has struggled to get lambing percentages above 150% in recent years and access to Smart Shepherd data will be the next push for flock productivity gains.
“And there are the added benefits of further reducing greenhouse gases by better identification of the highly productive ewes in a flock.
“Animal welfare also improves because the start an animal gets in life pretty much determines its health and well-being from there on – you will have healthier lambs from better mothers.”