Opportunities for individual sheep management in Western Australia

Page last updated: Wednesday, 25 March 2020 - 11:21am

Sheep managers can use electronic identification (EID) technology and automatic readers to manage individual sheep in a flock. Accurate and reliable data opens opportunities for improved supply chain management.

The capability of EID equipment has significantly improved in recent years, while prices have decreased.

In Victoria, it became mandatory from 1 January 2017 to EID-tag sheep and goats born in that year for traceability purposes, and there has been an increase in producer uptake of the technology for on-farm use.

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A short background on electronic identification

Allflex produced the first commercial EID tag for sheep and cattle, by adapting radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in 1992. Modern tags are quick and easy to apply (Figure 1). 

Electronic tag
Figure 1 Electronic tags have a serial or visual ID number printed on the outside of the tag

Benefits of electronic identification

Traceability of livestock

  • Accurate reliable data opens opportunities for improvement across the supply chain.
  • A robust and repeatable system of traceability is a market advantage with our trading partners.
  • Rapid traceability is critical in any major exotic disease outbreak. An electronic recording system using EID tags:
    • reduces human errors in recording information for traceability, as demonstrated with the cattle National Livestock Identification System (NLIS)
    • speeds identification, which helps limit the spread of disease
    • allows more-rapid proof of eradication.

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Animal management and monitoring

EID information from individual animals is more accurate, easier, faster and ultimately more likely to happen than using visual or manual systems of data capture. With the increased capability of handheld readers, producers can see information displayed on the screen in real time and implement decisions based upon previously collected data.

Any group of animals will have poor performers, average performers and superior performers for a given trait (Figure 2).

Animal performance distribution for a given trait
Figure 2 Example of the distribution of animal performance within a flock for a given trait (s)

Use EID to collect data on:

  • Response to selection pressure: even low heritability traits will still achieve some cumulative genetic gain if selection pressure is applied.
  • Poor performers: poor performers may cost the enterprise money, and in a traditional mob-based management system, they may remain for a number of years without being identified.
  • Birth type and mob details: this activity does not require electronic reading of the tags. The producer tracks the sequence of tags applied to each mob of lambs at lamb marking and can assign birth type or mob information.
  • Fleece weighing and fleece testing: using EID reduces errors, making data capture easier, faster and more accurate.
  • Individual liveweight recording: EID recording equipment can replace manual and visual weighing operations.
  • Individual ewe scanning results: this data may be used to apply selection pressure (remembering that heritability of fertility traits is low, while repeatability may be a consideration), or to provide feedback upon management and nutrition.
  • Pedigree MatchMaker (PMM): this walk-by system uses EID tags to estimate associations between ewes and their lambs, and provides the ability to trace individual animal pedigree.
  • EID-enabled Walk Over Weighing (WOW): records weights of individual animals as they walk across a platform, in a single file entrance, similar to that of PMM. There are quite a number of constraints and challenges associated with WOW. Therefore, for most intensively run sheep operations, weighing through the standard yard system remains the most cost effective and accurate option.
  • Kilograms of lamb weaned per ewe: by using PMM and recording individual weaning weights of each lamb, a flock can be ranked based on the kilograms of lamb produced by each ewe, and the worst performers can be culled.
  • Treatment recording: with ever-increasing demands and consumer expectations around safe use of chemical treatments, EID allows chemical treatments to be applied to and recorded against individual animals.
  • Simple stocktake: regular EID recording provides a record of the last time that stock were present on the property. This is valuable in cases of stock theft. This process makes collecting mortality data easier.
  • Anything to be recorded: with an EID system, you can record anything that can be measured objectively or subjectively. This is particularly beneficial in a stud where many traits need to be recorded.

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Carcase tracking and processing feedback

  • Producers can relate live animal management with the carcase measures. This improves on-farm management to meet market demand.
  • Processors have a record of management and health data for each carcase, which helps their marketing. A number of Victorian processors are currently installing the required infrastructure to capture individual carcase data, including animal health data.
  • Consumers have information and traceability to individual producers. This is increasingly expected by modern consumers.

Hook tracking, dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) and other technologies, such as hyperspectral cameras, will provide more-accurate and in-depth carcase data with respect to meat eating quality and physical carcase traits (e.g. weight and fat depth). The systems will also provide an opportunity to correlate this with on-farm practices and live animal data.

EID opportunities for the Western Australian sheep industry

EID can play some role in improving:

  • biosecurity
  • product integrity
  • product quality
  • products that meet changing consumer expectations
  • market advantage
  • animal welfare
  • the desirability of livestock enterprises to the next generation of farmers.

With Victoria already positioning itself well to take up the opportunities presented by hook tracking and DEXA, there is potential for eastern states lamb producers to achieve competitive advantage on both a domestic and world stage.

A survey of Western Australian producers in 2014 found that 4% of respondents were currently using EID in some form, with another 16% indicating they were considering using EID.

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Deciding to use EID in the business

Base the decision on cost compared to advantages. Remember that not all advantages are directly financial. Most of the benefits and advantages of EID are listed above.

Monitoring live-weights with EID-assisted walk over weighers is probably the simplest advantage that can give significant benefits:

  • as an aid to grazing and paddock management
  • to monitor livestock condition for mating
  • to monitor weight gain and turnoff weights.

The data need should be specific, measureable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART).

A more complicated example is 'I want to mark 145% lambs, turning off 21 kilogram (kg) carcases by 6 months of age, maintaining moderate mature ewe weights under an average of 70kg, and running a stocking rate of 14 dry sheep equivalents (DSE)/ hectare, all by 2022.'

To achieve the business and breeding objective:

  • What trait, treatment, or measurement needs to be collected?
  • Is it already collected?
  • What EID equipment would be needed to collect it and how much would it cost?
  • Could a contractor do the task?

What do you need to buy?

You may be able to hire equipment for sporadic use, or employ a contractor with the equipment. As you become familiar with the technology and the opportunities, you can invest more.

Managing the collected data

To collate and analyse the data collected, you will need computer software.

Simple tasks can use common software options such as Microsoft Excel. Use software developed specifically for managing livestock data for more complete and reliable data management. An internet search on 'EID data management software' will find many of the options.

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What is the cost benefit of EID?

Most of the economic benefits of using EID are based on improved decision-making and improved management. However, there are some direct labour savings in collecting data.

Cost:benefit labour-saving

If looking simply at the labour saving achieved for a single task, Table 1 illustrates the differences in labour cost associated with recording individual live weights using visual tags, as opposed to EID tags.

Table 1 Costs comparison of using visual and RFID (EID) tags for recording live weights of individual animals (Sheep CRC 2006)
 

Operation 1
(collecting weights only)

 

Operation 2
(collecting weights and data cleaning)

 
 

Visual tags

RFID

Visual tags

RFID

No. of sheep

700

700

600

600

No. of labour units

3

2

3

2

No. of man hours

11.67

4.67

13.5

3

Cost @ $40 per hour

$466.80

$186.80

$540

$120

Cost per weight recorded

$0.67

$0.27

$0.90

$0.20

Estimated error rate

   

5%

0.05%

No. of corrections needed

   

30

0.3

Time/error

   

0.1

0.1

Hourly rate for data management

   

$80

$80

Cost of time for tag correction

   

$240

$2.40

Cost per unit correct data

   

$1.30

$0.20

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Cost:benefit extra productivity

The cost:benefit was calculated from the extra productivity required per ewe to achieve a 3:1 return on the cost of the equipment, assuming a 10-year equipment lifespan, and not factoring in opportunity cost, finance cost or a cost differential between EID and visual tags.

For example, if a producer running 2000 ewes was to invest in $6000 worth of EID equipment, then the extra productivity that would need to be achieved per ewe to produce a 3:1 return on investment in equipment would be $0.90 per ewe.

If that same producer were running a prime lamb operation, then with lamb prices at $4.50/kg, the producer would need to increase productivity per ewe by 0.2kg of carcase weight. If the same concept were applied to a wool production enterprise assuming a wool price of $12/kg clean, the producer would need to increase wool production by 0.07kg clean or about 0.11kg of greasy wool per ewe.

Problems and solutions for EID users

  • Data capture process: needs to be reliable and repeatable (e.g. consistent curfew period before weighing animals, using the same protocol each time to weigh fleeces).
  • Bluetooth connection: check that the device is turned on and connected in the right order; always check after a few sheep that the equipment is recording properly.
  • Battery failure: check batteries are fully charged before using the equipment, and have a backup battery.
  • Metal interference: remove metal from the entire read area.
  • Electrical noise interference: e.g. another reader, laptop, phone charger, powerline.
  • Multiple tags within read range: e.g. animals presenting two-abreast past the reader, or impact of metal interference on reader.
  • Inappropriate selection or use of equipment: get independent advice about the equipment before purchase and have realistic expectations of equipment capability.

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