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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

When ewes and lambs are vaccinated or undergo health inspections, RFID tags are attached to each animal's ears. Every tag is encoded with a unique ID number linked, in the Sapien software, to data about the animal to which it is attached, such as its approximate birthdate and its category as lamb or grown ewe. The software, Wyld says, was developed with support from the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep, which includes an algorithm that scans through read data to match ewes and lambs. Multiple farms throughout Australia are now using the PedigreeScan system to track the ewes and the lambs to which they give birth.

At Texas A&M, the system is being tested on sheep and goats. "We're testing the applications using the technology developed in Australia," Redden says. The Texas A&M researchers install readers at the entrance to a fenced-in water trough. The paddock through which the animals enter is approximately 2 to 3 feet wide, and they pass through in single-file. Lambs typically follow their mother, at which time their tag ID numbers are also captured. The tags are provided by Shearwell Data, a U.K.-based animal identification technology company.

Rob Wyld
The reader comes with a raceway antenna that is around 2 feet wide, Redden reports. As the animals pass through, the reader captures tag data and stores the date and time each tag is scanned. The operator can visit the PedigreeScan unit on a regular basis and download the content of its memory via a Bluetooth link into a PC laptop. The software can interpret whether a particular animal is passing into or out of the water trough area. However, lambs do not always stay near the mother—and in some cases, lambs that don't belong to a ewe may also follow her. Therefore, the software collects data and analyzes it over a period of time, using many data points collected from multiple events.

In West Texas, a typical sheep pasture measures about 600 acres, according to Redden, and tracking the genetics of sheep without an RFID system can be difficult. With the solution in place, he predicts, the software could help farmers to identify multiple features. For instance, ewes that most often give birth to twins would be more productive breeders. Their own offspring could then be expected to carry on that trait, so they, too, could be good breeders. In addition, some sheep feature higher-quality or parasite-resistant wool, or may simply display overall superior health.

"If the animals were always in confinement," Redden explains, "you don't need [the RFID solution], but sheep are not a confined animal." Additionally, some parts of Texas have larger pastures than others for the same number of sheep, based on the amount of rain and, therefore, the quantity of green grass per animal.

Texas A&M has been testing the technology for three breeding seasons, Redden reports. The researchers have had to work around the variabilities of farming, including the fact that there may be less data collected during heavy rain, since the sheep would less frequently enter the water trough area under such conditions. Read rates have thus far proven to be 95 percent successful, he says, while the software algorithm is matching ewes with lambs at an accuracy rate of about 85 to 95 percent.

The technology has been tested at four different Texas ranches to date, Redden says, on both sheep and some goats. Texas A&M is now evaluating its next plans.

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