WHILE most of the presentations at last week's Stirlings to Coast Farmers Group Smart Farm Technology workshop discussed cropping, one speaker did update the crowd on the latest developments in the sheep industry.
Consultant Geoff Duddy has had more than 20 years involvement in the sheep sector, initially working for the Department of Agriculture in early 1986 at Narrabri's Myall Vale Research Station, in New South Wales.
In 1987 the opportunity came for him to transfer to Glen Innes Research Station and follow through with his passion for sheep-based research and extension.
Under the guidance of Dr Doug Fowler, Mr Duddy was heavily involved with development of commercial ultrasound pregnancy diagnosis systems and lambing ewe management protocols widely used within the national sheep industry today.
In June 1989 he transferred to Yanco as a sheep and wool extension officer with responsibilities for the management of the department's accelerated lambing and sheep milking research programs.
He accepted the permanent position of extension officer in 1991 working from this base until accepting a voluntary redundancy following the axing of extension-based positions within NSW DPI in 2013.
Following that he started his own consultancy business and has been working with clients across Australia.
Mr Duddy said meat and live animals was one of the fastest growing export segments in the past 20 years, rising by 79 per cent.
"Historically the livestock section has had strong productivity growth," he said.
"There has been a drive for more outputs for less inputs and, hopefully at the same time, a reduction in costs overall.
"Basically this has been driven by improvements in technology.
"It is great to have new technology but it has to be cost beneficial, you have to make a dollar out of it.
"Whatever new technology you choose to go with it has to be value adding to your operation."
Mr Duddy said efficiency of production was the most important thing.
"If you look at gross margins, the self-replacing Merino system is still the most profitable system," he said.
"The Merino has become a more dual-purpose type animal and the Merino lamb now makes up around 30 per cent of the total slaughter and export lambs in Australia.
"So how do we measure efficiency in our sheep operation?
"To measure a ewe's productivity efficiencies, the general feeling or recommendation is that the ewe turns off her equivalent weight in lamb product annually.
"One of the problems with the lamb industry in the past was ewes got too big and this impacted on feed efficiency and so things did change slightly where ewes were of a more medium frame but grew more wool or meat through better breeding gains."
Mr Duddy said improving lamb survival rates was another way to lift efficiency in the sector.
"The industry has been good at this and we know that one third of all ewes are responsible for two thirds of all lamb deaths, so we have to identify those ewes, through the use of electronic tags or wet and drying at marking time and finding those ewes that might have been scanned in lamb but all of a sudden lost a lamb," he said.
"Identify those ewes and get them out of the system."
Mr Duddy said growers should focus on what they could control and what would make them money.
"Things such as speed of lamb turn off is one thing that can be controlled through genetics and nutrition," he said.
"As soon as you wean a lamb off a ewe it drops your feed requirements by 30pc because that ewe becomes a dry sheep, and once that lamb is off you can start putting more condition on the ewe to get more lambs on the ground for the following year.
"Wool cut and quality can also be controlled through genetics and management.
"One area that is being looked at now, which is quite exciting, is the scanning and development of the placenta, which is what nourishes the foetus and this is really about setting that lamb up from a very early age."
In terms of technology coming through, Mr Duddy said things such as virtual fencing and drones were going to find even more of a place in sheep operations in the future.
"I like the look of virtual fencing, it will help reduce grazing pressure, improve weed control through crash grazing and I think it will be used for paddock engineering," he said.
"So for your lambing paddock for example, you can look at areas of high risk which are more exposed in the cold and wet weather and shut them off with virtual fencing.
"Drones are also finding a place for general farm monitoring and checking water, pastures and stock.
"I think they are a great idea for lambing paddocks if you don't like driving among the ewes at lambing time.
"You could use a drone to see a ewe in distress or one that is cast and then you can go in and help.
"With drones though, you have to consider their capabilities such as battery life and quality of pictures and so on."