5 June 2023
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Bluetooth helping to uncover elusive ewe and lamb behaviour

The sheep at NSW DPI Cowra Research and Advisory Station are proving that you can still look stylish while participating in crucial pedigree research.

Adorned with black and red collars fitted with Bluetooth technology, the flock are helping uncover hard-to-record traits of ewe and lamb behaviour.

“The most expensive thing to get is data on ewe rearing ability, especially for twins, so these devices have been really helpful for our flock performance recording, our research trials and what we want to do in future,” NSW DPI research officer Dr Gordon Refshauge said.

After nearly two decades of manual maternal pedigree data collection at lambing, researchers have turned to Smart Shepherd, a reusable smart tag system that captures the maternal instinct of the ewe to get pedigree.

Using Bluetooth technology, which is matched to the sheep’s individual RFID tag, the system looks for repeatable physical contact between mum and progeny, something that DNA cannot do, to measure maternal relationships in an environment that’s free of human interference.

“We use a military-grade Wi-Fi receiver that can read the tags from a huge range,” Dr Refshauge said.

“It’s the same kind of technology they use on army bases when deployed overseas. When soldiers come back on site, they don’t do roll call but are scanned in automatically using their individual RFID tag.”

While the military RFID tags track soldiers, weapons, and shipments, at Cowra Research and Advisory Station, it’s all about capturing the dynamics between lamb and ewe.

Smart Shepherd tag being attached to a sheep.

“These tags mean we don’t need to be in the lambing paddocks,” Dr Refshauge said.

“After first assigning collars to the ewes and lambs, we then bring the sheep back to the yards a two or so days later and download the data straight off collars using the Wi-Fi. This gives us all kinds of information: this lamb has been spending time with this lamb, this lamb has been spending time with that ewe. So, it gets our pedigree.”

“We’re getting up to 96% pedigree assignment and have additional data to consider in the future such as the abundance of time a lamb stays close to its mum and what that might mean for its growth to weaning, health and lifetime productivity. This data also allows our flock at Cowra to be research ready with pedigree, performance recorded, highly productive and relevant to the industry”

However, Dr Refshauge remains a strong advocate for producers to assess udders after lambing to improve lamb survival and weaning rates.

“The one thing this cannot address is the ewe that raises only one lamb from a litter of multiple lambs,” he said.

“These ewes need to be found to take lamb survival to the next level without doing the intensive, expensive lambing rounds. Using tech like Smart Shepherd, which is cheaper than DNA pedigree, we can find the ewes that fail to rear all the lambs they gave birth to. Smart Shepherd will help us find those ewes that give birth to twins and raise only one.”

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