BEING able to make stock management decisions on-farm in real time is likely to be a major benefit of a program of individual animal management currently being developed by the Australian Sheep Industry Co-operative Research Centre.
The "e-sheep" system is an exciting development for sheepmeat and wool producers and follows on from the successful implementation of similar programs in the cattle and poultry industries.
E-sheep aims to build up a profile of the individual elements of a flock, storing information such as breeding pedigree, health profiles, wool class, meat attributes and other productivity markers.
A special two-day e-sheep forum is being held in Armidale, NSW, on May 8 and 9 to discuss the latest research and demonstrate technology designed to streamline individual sheep management for improved on-farm decision making. The forum is being presented by the Sheep CRC in conjunction with Wool Vision.
Steve Semple, Livestock Research Officer (Precision Management) with NSW Agriculture, is one of the team involved in developing e-sheep.
He will be presenting at the forum on how farm equipment and software can be integrated to give farmers a better picture of the performance of their sheep. He will also be demonstrating an auto drafting system.
Of particular interest to woolgrowers is the ability to link e-sheep components to testing equipment in the field, enabling the assessment of fibre quality at shearing time and for marketing decisions to be made on-farm without delay.
"Being able to split animals up into micron groups pre-shearing, so the wool you're sending away is a much tighter specification, will hopefully allow you to get a premium for that type of wool," Mr Semple said.
"Two or three years ago we had to take a sample of wool to a laboratory and then wait to get the results back. Now we can actually do that at the side of the race or in the shearing shed, so that lends itself to decisions being made in real time while the animal is in front of you. You can take a test measurement and make a decision before the animals leave the yards."
According to Mr Semple, although fibre testing is already used on farm, it has largely been with untagged sheep, providing "one-off" information rather than a record that can be stored and used to objectively determine the most profitable sheep in a flock.
"What we're proposing is that by individually identifying animals you can take that fibre measurement and store it away in a database and then at some other stage add repeat measurements which would give you a much better way of identifying superior sheep," he said.
Another benefit Mr Semple sees is the ability to accurately draft slaughter stock according to bodyweight.
He said that instead of loading all the sheep onto a truck, they could be "custom grouped" to a specification within a few kilograms and then targeted at particular markets on specific days to take advantage of premium prices.
Mr Semple said visual assessment of sheep would continue to be an important aspect of the industry and this would be enhanced by the addition of electronic measurement and by using integrated data.
"With the addition of some objectively measured traits the computer can put an economic value on those traits and you still have the override of any visual selection. By using both of those methods we'll get a better sheep out of it at the end of the run," he said.
Mr Semple said the options for individual sheep management ranged from a simple visual identification ear tag that stayed with an animal for life to a fully integrated electronic system linked to yarding and testing equipment.
An entry level electronic system might include ear tags and a hand-held tag reader, while a state-of-the-art system might be linked to an automated drafting race which captures a sheep and holds it while a range of tests and measurements are conducted.
"There will be some people who won't want to do electronic sheep identification because of the costs associated with it, but by individually identifying animals farmers can still make some gains in productivity without going to the extra expense," Mr Semple said.
One of the people charged with developing the software and telecommunications applications for e-sheep is David Miron, a research scientist with CSIRO Livestock Industries.
Dr Miron is a specialist in designing mobile phone network software, and he sees portable wireless communications as an important ingredient in the implementation of individual sheep management.
"Because of the vast distances these sheep farms cover, running cables or fibres is not an option, so an obvious solution is wireless data transfer using GPRS, GSM, CDMA and satellite phone technology," he said.
He cites the management of animal health issues as one key on-farm use for wireless data transfer.
At the e-sheep forum. Dr Miron will conduct a demonstration linking a CDMA phone to a palm operating system, which will be in turn be linked to a set of runway scales using WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) technology feeding into a remote computer server.
Dr Miron will also talk about ways of integrating on-farm automation with the natural behavioural characteristics of sheep, making the process efficient and non-invasive.
"For example while a sheep's going for a drink, it will get weighed and at the same time be automatically drafted according to bodyweight," he said.
Forum registration forms can be downloaded from the Sheep CRC website, www.sheep.crc.org.au or more information producers can contact Agritours Australia on (02) 6772 9066 or email: email@example.com.