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Australian Sheep Farmers Explore RFID's Benefits

Six sites in the state of Victoria are working with the Department of Primary Industries to demonstrate the economic benefits of using RFID tags to identify individual animals.
By Dave Friedlos
In addition to breeding healthier sheep for consumption, Shovelton says, the value of the animals' fleece can vary by up to $50 between the best and worst producing sheep in a particular flock. RFID could enable farmers to weed out those sheep that produce low-quality wool. By identifying the best performing and most valuable specimens, he adds, farmers could then manage them appropriately to maximize productivity and profitability.

"Another potential way to do this using RFID is to link lambs with their ewe to determine if the offspring of one ewe is better than others," Shovelton says. "This is difficult to do manually. But lambs follow their mothers. By tagging the sheep, it would be possible to automatically identify lambs with their mother as they walk past an RFID reader together." There are clear economic gains in the identification of well-performing sheep, he explains: Farmers could separate poorly performing sheep from flocks, manage the distribution of feed appropriately and direct labor to where it is most needed.

The biggest obstacle, Shovelton says, would be data management. "A project like this will generate huge amounts of data," he states, "and managing that would be very time-consuming." Examining that issue, however, is one of the purposes of the six demonstration sites. RFID will not always be the most cost-effective solution, Shovelton says, but it is vital to determine where the economic benefits are, and to demonstrate how RFID can be employed practically.

According to Britt, the DPI and MS&A have installed RFID equipment at six commercial farms to test the technology under normal conditions. RFID interrogators have been installed on sheep drafts—narrow races, or passageways, with swinging gates that enable sheep to be separated into different pens—to allow individual sheep to be detected and the flock split up according to the information on the tag. Readers have also been installed in shearing sheds, and farmers have been trained in the equipment's operation. In addition, the DPI is utilizing passive half-duplex (HDX) tags that operate at 134.2 kHz and comply with the ISO 11784 and 11785 standards—the same standards utilized for cattle tags.

"RFID is a technology that we are familiar with, given that there have been about 70 million tags produced for the cattle industry," Britt says. "So we go into this project with a lot of experience and a lot of confidence." The project will run for three years, he adds, though MS&A expects to have preliminary data on RFID's benefits by the end of 2008.

"It is about getting comfortable with the technology and ensuring it works," Shovelton states. "If the economic benefits are proven, a push to roll it out across all sheep farmers could come from the industry itself, rather than a government mandate."

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