TRIALING collars on 600 sheep has been a journey of discovery for mixed farmer Belinda Lay, Coolindown Farms, Esperance.
More than a year ago Ms Lay started looking into technology she could use on the farm to answer some of her questions around improving mortality rates for lamb-bearing ewes and saving time and reducing costs by remote monitoring.
For her on-farm research Ms Lay won the AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award 2019.
She gave a short overview of her sheep collar trial at the Southern Dirt TECHSPO at Katanning last week as part of a raft of agri-tech presentations.
"We collect a lot of data (as an industry) about cropping," Ms Lay said.
"We haven't much advanced with the livestock side of things except the auto drafter and the walk over weighing.
"Australian farmers are some of the most innovative farmers in the world and we have got very high animal welfare practice, but recent issues like the Awassi Express and the rise of animal activism is challenging our ability or social license to farm animals.
"On my farm combined with these other issues, was lambing ewes and newborn mortality."
Ms Lay said after undertaking a Lifetime Ewe Management Program she wondered "how do we implement that and make the most of what we have got".
"So how do we evidence our best practice?," she said.
"How do we create transparency and then communicate that to the general wider population?"
She turned to technology.
"I read the Farm Weekly, in my house - it's the weekly bible," she said.
She also read other ag publications about GPS tags and other technologies "and it got my brain ticking about how do we go on it, to do it?"
"None of them were commercially available in Australia and wouldn't be for a couple of years," Ms Lay said.
"And I was a little bit frustrated with that for a bit.
"I ended up with a company in Spain that make real time tracking collars.
"But it was a process.
"What do I need to run those? What does that look like? Can I get that in Australia? - and so I ended up having to bring in a Sigfox tower."
Ms Lay said her operations spanned four properties over 20 kilometres "so driving through farms checking livestock and all that sort of thing is some of our labor and time issues, (not to mention) fuel and wear and tear on vehicles".
"So what if I could from my home base check sheep on the furthest farm without having to drive there?" she said.
"That was attractive to me.
"The nearest mobile tower allows 4G service in the front farm office so we use that for our home data - we haven't needed to do anything else."
Ms Lay said the problem she had was connecting the home block to the other blocks which were obstructed by a granite outcrop and other landmarks.
With approval from the neighbour she was able to put the Sigfox tower on top of the outcrop, enabling 25 kilometres of coverage of "all four of my farms, and my collars read from all four locations".
She said the collars worked via a small radio signal.
"Every 30 minutes the collar pulls the trigger on the 'two-way' and sends its little data package message via two-way signal up to the hill and that goes from there up into the cloud," she said.
"The 30 minute readings on every device, on every sheep, gives me a GPS location and a temperature, and then once it is in the cloud there is an algorithm that's built on basic behaviour of each animal - that creates mob normal and pulls out extremes.
"So anyone that is low activity is sent to me as an alert.
"Compared to the rest of the mob that sheep is not being normal.
"It is in real time - compared with another technology that is currently available in the market."
Ms Lay said the reason she explored this option was for improved animal welfare.
"My ewes are pretty lucky, I think they have got the best ever on-call midwife during lambing," she said.
"So when one of them goes down I get a call for low activity and I can go have a look.
"I can be there faster than the usual 24 hour daily check that happens."
Ms Lay said she would undertake three trials in a year, with the first one about to an end.
"It's a trial on lambing ewes and whether I can reduce mortality in my lambing ewes - which is in turn going to increase my productivity," Ms Lay said.
"My second trial starts in October when I am weaning lambs."
Ms Lay said the third trial was to spread the collared sheep over every mob of sheep on the farm - just a handful in each to gather the information about each mob.
"About their behaviour and what they are doing, where they are at what time of the day, whether that can influence my productivity," she said.
It would also assist with how she did things, managed them, and whether there were time and or labour savings to be found in knowing what each mob of sheep were doing.
Ms Lay said in the future she would look into ewe/lamb matching in the paddock with collars on ewes and blue tooth tags on lambs and compare the technology next year with DNA to see how accurate new lamb technology can ewe/lamb match without human interference.
She said after starting her journey of discovery she has become interested in twin genetics.
"How we can capitalise the ewe lamb matching to identify who's scanned with twins and whose weaned twins," she said.
"And how those decisions influence my internal nucleus flock and internal ram breeding flock.
"How those decisions change the animals I choose for my internal flocks and favouring that twin genetics for productivity."
Ms Lay said she was asked to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of her findings.
"I had a purpose," she said.
"I knew what I wanted to know.
"I had some questions I wanted answered and so getting into it was quite easy and deciding my technology choice was quite easy.
"After I was in that I realised the bad and the ugly - which is the infancy of technology.
"Price point - collars are not cheap at this point and Australian Wool Innovation tags look really exciting but the technology is not currently available.
"I started realising I was going to have multiple apps on my phone to read every technology that I was interested in.
"When I started 12 months ago there were no dashboards - now there are five - I'm not sure which is worse a choice or no choice.
"I've identified collaboration between farmers and ag-tech - there's a little bit of a gap there."
Ms Lay said she used electronic ID tags and weight data on-farm, along with Agriwebb for the management app.
"None of these things talk to each other," she said.
"I call this 'the ugly'.
"It is frustrating and even more frustrating I have GPS tracking and I still have to open Agriwebb to shift sheep on an app.
"Can't the GPS shift the sheep?
"It is more accurate than I am - the GPS knows where it is."
Ms Lay said despite her issues the agri-tech field provided opportunity.
"It is all an infancy thing so I think what we can learn and where we can go is quite exciting," she said.
"My biggest thing is cross enterprise - I'm a mixed farmer but I can get an app for cropping and I can get a different thing for livestock, but I don't get something that does both.
"We do crop grazing so at what critical point do my sheep start affecting my crop?
"At what point do I sacrifice my crop for the sheep?
"They are related - I don't have just one farm with sheep on it - and another farm with just crop on it.
"To me I have 600 professional agronomists with four legs walking around my paddock - the only problem is they don't speak English.
"I think technology is exciting, being able to collect what they know and what they can tell us about our own paddocks, so I encourage those that are in cropping and yield data, please don't forget about my sheep.
"They affect my crop and my crop affects my sheep."