ELECTRONIC identification, pregnancy scanning and foetal ageing have been a huge package that has changed the way Wagin farmer Clayton South manages his sheep and cropping enterprise.
He looked to technology in his sheep production system five years ago as a way to more easily and precisely manage a 7000-head ewe flock that included a big amount of crop grazing.
In one major investment he bought the full gamut of electronic identification and recording equipment and has continued to find benefits.
In 2015 Mr South put EID tags into the entire flock and said it has been worth it.
He and two full-time staff, including a cropping manager, run a 5000-hectare mixed farming enterprise comprising 65-70 per cent cropping with the rest given over to a pure Dohne flock of 4000 adult ewes and 2700 ewe hoggets.
Recently Mr South set up a fully pedigree-recorded nucleus flock of 800 ewes from which to breed his own rams and has refenced some of the home farm into small twin lambing nursery paddocks and established them with permanent pasture.
To fit the sheep around the cropping program, he uses a condensed 28-day mating period with lambing starting at the end of June.
This year the mating time for the oldest 700 ewes was reduced even further to 21 days.
Mr South has been foetal ageing for seven to eight years with the pregnancy scanner, splitting the ewes into early and late lambers so each mob has two 18-20 day lambings that overlap.
Mr South said he fell into split lambing because they were grazing crops and over a 35-day lambing it was a long time to leave ewes on a crop, taking into account the time prior to and after lambing in which they could be moved with minimum disruption.
It was a management tool that expanded what his father Terry was already doing.
"He started scanning for and separating out twin-bearing ewes in the late 1990s to give them better nutritional management then put them back together to shear them in their tag colours because that's how we always did it", Mr South said.
"We had identified the twin lambers, but I wondered if the twin lambers one year were also the same ewes that produced twins the next year and so we stated putting in micron tags to identify them for each year."
It was time consuming and the difficulty made them look for an easier way
"When I first came home we were joining 2500 ewes but soon we were mating about 7000 and getting 3500 twins and it was far too time consuming and it was simpler to go to a EID tag and record it," Mr South said.
At the time that was the sole reason he introduced EID.
Mr South kept doing it because he was seeing huge repeatability in the twinning ewes.
"If we managed the multiple birth ewes better, got them onto stubbles quickly after the lambs were weaned and in good condition then they often produced twins again the next year and we could only do that if we knew who they were.
He is selecting for multiple births but said heritability wasn't very high, but neither was it zero.
They are also joining their ewe lambs at seven months of age - at the same time as the rest of the flock but for an extended 42 days.
"This year we pushed it out to an eight-week joining and hopefully we can get another 5-10pc of lambs on the ground and, at this point in time, it could be very worthwhile.
"Everything we collect data-wise fits into the bell curve.
"We manage them as a mob and we know what the average is."
"We want to identify the individual elite performers and take out the lower performers - it is the whole basis of what we are doing.
"Farmers need to push that bell curve to the right to achieve genetic gain regardless whether it is for wool or lambing."
Mr South said typically in pregnancy scanning there were a few triplets, lots of twins and singles and a few dries which were routinely removed.
They had also culled their late single lambing ewes in response to the dry conditions last year, saying they no longer adhered to the traditional practice of selling ewes at 5.5 years of age.
Instead they referred to the accumulated data to retain their best performing sound ewes regardless of age.
"We are really trying to drive that bell curve to the right in terms of twinning," Mr South said.
Originally he wanted only to capture multiple birth status but now he collects marking, weaning, fleece weights and other information he hadn't thought of five years ago.
They use a Kool Software auto-record board that sits on the pregnancy scanner's crate and a laptop in the yards and every animal is matched to a pregnancy scanning bar code to record the information.
They continue to do foetal ageing and run the ewes together as a mob and only draft them when it is time to do their pre-lambing needle.
"We can give a much more targeted vaccination and nutritional requirements to match foetal age," Mr South said.
"We can't force ewes to definitely have twins but it is my job as a manager to find out how many she is having, when she is having them and work out what I can do to help her perform fully.
"It also has benefits for us by being able to stagger our lamb marking and weaning according to early and late lambs and spread the workload out over four weeks instead of all at once.
"In a tough season we can wean lambs early because we know they are old enough to come off their mothers.
"It has been a massive tool for us."
Mr South also uses a lamb marking box so lambs are automatically weighed and recorded when they are released from the marking cradle.
He was involved in a proximity sensor trial run by the Deparmtment of Primary Industries and Regional Development last year to match a group of 529 maiden ewes with their lambs.
He left any dry ewes in the group so he could calculate gross margins per ewe after the trial finished and recorded fleece weights in the equation.
It was a reasonable year and they were stock at nine dry sheep (DSE) and based on his normal allocation of 1.8DES for a twin lambing ewe, it was the equivalent of five ewes/ha.
Ewes that raised two lambs were penalised an extra $5/lamb to take into account marking etc. and their higher cost structure.
The top ewe in the trial produced triplets and reared 93.9kg of lamb and cut 3.6 kg of wool for a $227 profit.
The bottom ewe cost money to remain flock and had a -$16.42 gross margin as a result of not rearing amb and still only cutting 3.6kg wool.
The top 25pc of ewes returned $133.38/head average; the middle 50pc averaged $85 and the bottom 25pc only returned $40.33 average - a difference of almost $100 a head between the best and worst performers.
"It shows the power of being able to raise two lambs and in our system wool is not irrelevant but 70percen of our sheep income is from sales and having numbers to sell," he said.
Other trial information showed 200 ewes raised twins returning an average $122.85/head;
290 ewes reared only a single lamb and returned $71.73 and the 39 that were dry cost an average of -$3.20 to carry.
"I wouldn't know this information if I didn't collect all this data," Mr South said.
"There is not much correlation between ewes that raise twins and those that didn't cut much wool.
"The top sheep are doing both."
Significantly, the top performing ewe was 149th on ranking
"If I can have this sort of data across the entire flock I would be a happy man," he said.
Mr South also trialled EID tags in wether lambs that were weighed onto the truck bound for the abattoir and manually hook-tracked them through processing to give individual carcase weights and dressing percentages.
"In future if we have EID, carcase tracking and DEXA and know what ewes are producing the best lambs and the ram used, we could start really making some decisions around where we want to take our breeding by listening to our customers and knowing eating quality and other things consumers are wanting from us as farmers," he said.
"We are nearly at the stage of using EID for wether lambs and using sensors to get some more of this feed back.
"The future is already here with proximity sensors and DEXA and the economics of data capture and analysis is coming down.
"To further analyse individual ewes based on a gross margins would be huge and to do that every year could really drive genetic gain in our sheep flock.
"I'm trying to make breeding decisions now for where I see the market will be in five to 10 years' time.
"We can't control price but we can control production."