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RFID Goes Out to Pasture, Matching Ewes With Lambs

Texas A&M researchers are testing technology from Sapien to capture the identities of ewes and their lambs in Australia, and to match the families together based on their activity.
By Claire Swedberg
Jul 16, 2018

While all agricultural work is labor-intensive and, in many ways, unpredictable, the challenge is especially felt by sheep farmers. These wooly livestock require a wide range of pastoral graze to thrive, and for that reason are difficult to contain. That makes control over breeding, especially when it comes to understanding genetic lines, an imperfect science for farmers. Ewes give birth in the fields, and both ewes and lambs move freely through pastures. Farmers must find ways in which to leverage the most productive ewes, and ultimately to ensure the most profitable lamb production.

That's where RFID can help. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension is testing a low-frequency (LF) 125 kHz RFID-based system provided by Australian company Sapien to match mother sheep with their lambs, and thereby understand which ewes produce which characteristics.

Reid Redden
The system employs RFID reader panels at paddocks through which sheep travel single file to access water, and its software captures and analyzes the behavior of sheep as they travel, and thereby identifies those that are related. This information enables breeders to predict the ewes that will produce the healthiest, most productive offspring, says Reid Redden, a Texas A&M professor and AgriLife Extension state sheep and goat specialist at San Angelo.

RFID technology is already being used to identify livestock, and to obtain information about animals' health, as the path of custody from one party to another. In Victoria, Australia, that kind of RFID tracking for cattle became mandatory in 2003—which is when Sapien was launched, says Rob Wyld, the company's managing director. The firm has focused on providing farmers with solutions to help them gain their own benefits from the RFID tags that they are mandated to apply to cattle, goats, sheep and other livestock.

In the case of sheep, farmers typically have little visibility into which ewe gave birth to which lambs. That matters on a genetic level, Wyld says, because a ewe that weans twins weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds) may be a better breeder than one that weans a single 20-kilo (44-pound) lamb. By knowing which of their sheep are the healthiest, most productive breeding ewes, farmers can better manage which animals they intend to breed again.

Traditionally, farmers had to catch lambs, place them in a contained area separate from their mothers and then try to link up particular ewes and lambs. They would try to tag the lambs with printed serial number tags, in order to link them to a specific ewe near which they are physically observed to be located. Sapien calls its technology-based solution to this labor-intensive process the PedigreeScan. This software- and reader-based solution enables farmers to understand, with relative certainty, what types of lambs the ewes deliver, Wyld says. Sapien's PedigreeUnit reader is an alternative to other off-the-shelf readers, he explains, most of which can be cumbersome for farmers.

What's more, the devices often require large batteries and possibly a solar unit to help power them. They could be difficult to install, as well, for users who lack technical backgrounds. "So we built our pedigree unit using less power (about 10 to 15 watts)," Wyld says, in contrast with most traditional readers that require 120 watts to operate. The device comes with a built-in reader from Texas Instruments.

Sapien accomplished the low-power consumption by reducing the read rate and programming the reader to go dormant when no tags are within its vicinity. The panel reader can be attached to a battery via crocodile clips, and can be mounted on the side of a single file lane erected near a water source or other attractor in the paddock.

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