Fitbit for sheep – it’s not what ewe think

By Darius Koreis

17 March 2017

sheep running in a race

Activity trackers could allow farmers to breed high performance sheep … but probably not for racing. Image: Fraser Reid (Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

Erase that image of headband wearing, treadmill running sheep from your mind (sorry). But in the same way that wearable devices such as Fitbits log your activity and health, activity trackers could soon be a vital tool for Australian farmers to monitor the health and behaviour of their sheep.

Consider for a moment that a ewe (female sheep) can change paddocks 10 times a year, and the feed in each paddock might be completely different (grass, shrubs, harvested crops). Simultaneously, the ewe will be carrying, suckling or teaching its lamb what to eat.

With approximately 74 million sheep in Australia – and more than a billion worldwide, managing the welfare of their flocks is a big logistical problem for farmers.

Our researchers are looking to solve this problem by developing customised activity trackers for sheep using GPS and accelerometers that measure 3D movement.

Sheep fitted with trackers

Woolly weigh-in: our ovine friends are readied before being put through their paces (with Tanya Kilminster, DAFWA).

Accessorising sheep

Sheep fitted with the trackers attached behind their shoulders were grazed in field trials in Western Australia to test their effectiveness, with the help of local farmers*.

Our senior research scientist Dr Dean Thomas said farmers are starting to use devices like water point monitors, GPS and drones in their businesses.

However, the trials showed that the trackers could inform broader practical management decisions by monitoring animal growth and health; escapes, predation and theft; water supply; erosion, and pasture quantity and its use.

“Farmers generally rely on gut feel, rules of thumb and visual observations to manage their livestock,” Dr Thomas said.

“We feel we can increase productivity and improve animal wellbeing by developing scientifically-based monitoring products that alert and keep farmers up to date with the wellbeing of their flocks.”

Softwear—ware development

The team’s next challenge is interpreting the captured data to maximise its value. But to do that, they’ll go back to basics and visually monitor sheep behaviour and productivity across a range of situations.

For instance, can sheep behaviour be used to alert a farmer when the current paddock has run out of feed? Can the speed of a flock’s movement be used to detect a predator so an alert can be sent to a farmer?

“We need to build up our data over a number of different scenarios, and then convert all of that into an integrated system for graziers.”

Another challenge is waiting for hardware costs to drop further before farmers invest in equipping their flocks, and the more sheep fitted with the trackers, the broader the opportunities. Just imagine if every sheep had their own tracker – stray, sick, or injured individuals could be quickly identified and helped.

Dr Thomas also said sheep breeders would benefit from large numbers of individual sheep being monitored, by picking up desirable phenomic – or trait – information.

“It’s previously been incredibly difficult to answer questions such as, ‘are more active sheep actually healthier and growing faster, or is this an inefficient use of their energy with no productive gain?’

“Like a team of football players wearing GPS trackers, the individual performance of sheep could be evaluated.”

Advances in livestock management technologies may provide a solution to many of the challenges associated with keeping sheep in mixed crop and livestock farms, and hold the key to helping farmers breed and manage healthier and more productive sheep.

Find out more about our research into precision livestock management here.

*Special thanks to Facey, MADFIG, West Midlands, West Arthur Trials Group, UWA Ridgefield Farm, and the Grower Group Alliance for assisting with this research.