We all know the benefit of Fitbits and the data they capture for us humans. Now, these ‘Wearable Motion Sensors’ are being put to work on sheep and cows on farms across Australia.
The research team has analysed movement data, similar to those from a Fitbit, taking it to an unprecedented level of detail and providing powerful insights into the health, wellbeing and behaviours of cattle and sheep.
This will help farmers understand and act on an individual animal’s behaviour, even on very large-scale farms.
Director of La Trobe’s Centre for Technology Infusion, Dr Aniruddha (Ani) Desai said the new technology has the potential to transform farmers’ understanding of their livestock, which in turn will lead to significant economic benefit.
“The next generation of low cost and low weight sensors and the data they provide can bring the human factor back into farming,” Dr Desai said.
“In the past, farmers got to know the habits of their individual animals. However, with large-scale farming, that is now impossible and current systems such as video monitoring are highly inaccurate.”
Science leader for this program, Dr Markandeya (Mark) Jois said study has been carried out over the past three years on three farms in Victoria; a dairy farm in Tatura, a sheep farm in Greta and a beef farm in Winchelsea.
“Our work has shown the potential of such technology to address important industry problems in Australia such as high lamb mortality rate in sheep and improving feed efficiency and pasture utilisation in both dairy and beef industries” said Dr Jois.
Dr Desai said the next step is to bring the new technology to market for a broader application in the Australian farming industry.
“Response from the farmers with whom we’ve worked has been unanimously positive and we are now seeking commercial partners to help make this technology a reality – with the potential to make a huge difference to the livestock industry in Australia,” Dr Desai said.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION AND CASE STUDIES
Addressing the issue of early deaths among lambs
Premature death of lambs has significant economic and welfare impacts on the Australian sheep industry; as many as 30 per cent of lambs born die within 48 hours after birth. Finding the cause of high lamb mortality is critical in finding a solution to improve lamb survival rates.
Lamb mortality is particularly high in lambs born to Merino ewes, known for their poor mothering ability. The micron of the wool fibre determines whether the wool ends up as a carpet or a fine Japanese vest; the margin for the farmer differs significantly and depends on the micron of the wool thread. Consequently sheep farmers are almost without exception expert breeders.
The high rate of premature deaths is not only a preventable cost and an animal welfare issue, but it also disturbs these breeding programs. With the new technology, it is now possible to breed not only on wool quality, but also on mothering instincts.
La Trobe University’s Science leader for this program, Dr Markandeya (Mark) Jois said placing smart sensors on ewes and lambs enables farmers to identify ewes with strong maternal bonding with their lambs.
“The new smart technology and resulting data has already proven highly successful in understanding the interaction between ewes and their offspring and we also now know how physically close together they are. By looking at distance and the interaction between the dam and lamb using the sensors, we can understand which mothers are more likely to look after their lambs and select them for breeding, therefore reducing lamb mortality,” Dr Jois said.
Dr Jason Trompf, sheep industry consultant and the owner of one of the trial farms, said the new sensor technology also enabled farmers to identify quickly which lamb belongs to which ewe (maternal pedigree).
“With these sensors, maternal pedigree can be established very quickly,” Dr Trompf said.
“In extensive Australian farms, such as merino stud farms where you might have 2000 studs, it is very difficult to link lamb to dam. Current methods used in the industry are time consuming and expensive, so this new application offers a big opportunity.”
Understanding feeding patterns of cows
The Victorian Dairy Industry is the largest rural industry, with approximately 1 million cows producing 6 billion litres of raw milk annually. Victoria is also home to approximately 3.5 million beef cattle.
La Trobe research has shown that analysing the behaviours of cows with ’Fitbit‘ type sensors helps in both the dairy industry as well as in the beef industry.
The La Trobe team measured behaviours such as biting, chewing, and ruminating and then analysed them, correlating the results with growth and health metrics of the cow.
With beef cattle, this helps farmers understand the causes of poor growth observed during the winter months and develop intervention strategies.
Agricultural consultant and researcher Simon Falkiner from Murdeduke Agriculture, one of the trial farms, said the knowledge of what the cows are doing in a paddock is vital to improving productivity and efficiency and that the new technology has helped deepen this understanding.
“Smart sensor technology will allow us to paint a picture of what animals are doing 24 hours a day, giving us greater understanding of what the issues are and when during the day the animals are being challenged,” Mr Falkiner said.
For dairy farmers, the sensor data helps manage a major input cost in dairy farms. Feed contributes to 60 per cent of total variable costs. Pasture and hay are relatively inexpensive whereas feed grains are expensive but are necessary to provide the extra energy to improve the use of pasture and hay. Smart sensors attached to dairy cows enable farmers to optimise the amount of grain fed to cows matching the intake of pasture by individual cows, improve pasture utilisation and reduce feed costs.
“It comes back to being able to effectively and efficiently operate what we control and being able to make the best use of resources we have in front of us. This technology is going to help us find problems and solutions or grow more quality feed,” said Markus Lang, a dairy farmer and La Trobe alumnus.
“The technology will allow us to observe individual cows and assist them daily if that’s what we choose to do, which at the moment is not simply possible using traditional methods. I do think we will get to the stage where every animal on the farm will be carrying this type of technology,” said Markus Lang.
About the La Trobe Centre for Technology Infusion
The Centre for Technology Infusion at La Trobe is a leading research and innovation centre, whose focus is on translating research outcomes into practical solutions for socially relevant, high impact areas including precision agriculture, transport safety, logistics and supply chain and energy and environment.
More information on the Centre for Technology Infusion.
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