'Baa-code' tracks performance

17 Dec, 2014 01:00 AM
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Unmanned aerial vehicles may one day be used by pastoralists to collect imagery to measure pasture quality and quantity.
Unmanned aerial vehicles may one day be used by pastoralists to collect imagery to measure pasture quality and quantity.

THEY may sound like pie-in-the-sky ideas, but drones for monitoring pasture cover, or virtual-fencing mobs of sheep with GPS-tracking collars, are on the horizon for many pastoralists, according to Agri Partner Consulting principal livestock consultant Hamish Dickson.

Mr Dickson, Clare, was the guest speaker at a webinar last week run by Bestprac, a program which provides support for pastoral wool, sheep meat and cattle producers to improve their business and production performance.

He said it was exciting, with a large amount of research being undertaken into precision sheep management, and rapid advances in technology.

There were already some relatively inexpensive innovations such as individual fleece testing in-shed, and remote water monitoring using telemetry systems which were making a big difference to pastoral businesses, delivering productivity benefits and labour savings. Others were just a few years off.

A growing number of those with self-replacing Merino flocks were using in-shed testing to identify the most profitable sheep, particularly hoggets.

He said there was often a $30 to $40 a head difference within a flock. This could be identified using electronic sheep eartags which are scanned on the shearing board. A barcode was then printed for each individual sheep. The fleece was weighed and the barcode moved with the fleece throughout the shearing shed.

Before the sheep were shorn, they were mid side-sampled for fleece measurements.

"A few years ago when the micron premiums were there, the cost could be easily paid for by sorting wool into micron lines, but producers are still seeing the benefits and can justify the cost of labour because of the increased wool cut/hd it delivers," he said.

"Often when the season gets tighter it is a really good piece of knowledge on which to make culling decisions."

Telemetry based remote water monitoring systems had decreased in price and a system which monitored the water levels of a tank and provided images could now be set up for about $3000 a site. Pastoralists with phone coverage could also use simple remote cameras which cost $200-$300. These were capable of taking photos at watering points at pre-determined times and texting the image to a mobile phone.

Walk-over weighing systems could also be a great tool in pastoral areas for increasing knowledge of animal performance such as growth rates in young animals or ewe condition score, and reducing labour inputs.

He said the equipment involved - such as the weighbars and telemetry system - was reliable but there was still some fine-tuning needed to collect consistent, repeatable records.

Among the issues were multiple animals moving through the weigh area at the same time, or using water troughs as an attraction when animals were drinking from other water sources.

Mr Dickson expected unmanned aerial vehicles to have multiple benefits taking photos of stock, watering points and fencelines, and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index for collecting imagery measuring pasture quality and quantity. This would assist in grazing or destocking decisions.

"There has been a lot of interest in UAVs in the past 12-18 months - particularly in cropping systems, which is where we will see it used first," he said.

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    Catherine Miller

    Catherine Miller

    is Stock Journal's livestock editor and South East correspondent

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