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Pilot Project Tracks Lambs

Bert Grisnich always wanted to keep better records. He knew that as the size of his flock of sheep increased, to get ahead he would need good record keeping that would grow with his farm. He says the electronic information that he’s collecting as a farm co-operator in the Alberta Lamb Traceability pilot project is helping his business become more efficient.

“I knew a computer-based program would likely be the best way to keep track of my flock,” says the Fort McLeod-area producer who runs 160 ewes as part of his father-in-law’s 750 head commercial operation. “Our tags link into a hand-held computer system in the sheep shed. They have made record keeping half the work it was before.”

Currently in its third year, the pilot project’s goals are to evaluate electronic systems to determine the costs and benefits of the different options, and to develop systems that meet the needs of all members of the lamb supply chain.

The pilot project is one of a linked series of collaborative projects, which will help to develop a national traceability system for sheep. Because of the extensive nature and complexity of the Alberta project, it is serving as a model for the national effort. The Alberta project is managed by Alberta Agriculture and is supported with funding from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency. Alberta Lamb Producers are also key stakeholders in this project.

“The focus of our project is collaboration across all members of the supply chain to achieve the goals of traceability and to maximize the benefits of using this technology for flock management,” says Tony Stolz, coordinator of the pilot project. “In order to get full buy-in, traceability technology must work for the supply chain by providing benefits through improvements in management.”

While the initial push for the tags was to meet traceability requirements, Stolz says that traceability is more of a fortunate side benefit of adopting the technology, rather than the key purpose. “The first and foremost reason given for using these systems is the management benefits the systems provide,” he says. “In surveys with participating producers, most intend to use their systems to help select superior breeding stock, identify unprofitable breeding stock, identify poorly performing feedlot animals, to become more efficient with labour, and to help streamline management processes.”

Each tag sold to a producer is associated in a database with the farm’s government assigned premises identification number. If the animal is moved to a different location, the information moves with it. The program uses RFID, or radio frequency ear tags that are read either visually or electronically. Electronic readers send out a radio signal which “energizes” the RFID tag. The tag then transmits its unique number back to the tag reader.

“The more information you input into the computer the better records you will get,” says Grisnich. “If you can think of it, you can put it in. Right now we are testing what information works best, what we need and don’t need to input for our operation, and also what we need to send to the government to meet traceability requirements.”

The pilot project has already seen information being used in new and creative ways. For example, one feedlot owner is experimenting with using RFID to track consignment animals on his feedlot. With the current technology, animals can be tracked even if they are in mixed groups. This ability could lower costs for feedlot operators and allow smaller producers to more efficiently finish their animals to higher and more profitable weights by retaining ownership at feedlots.

Grisnich says that the first year of use of the tags should be considered a benchmarking year. He cautions producers not to expect business efficiencies right away, and adds that they will need to collect data to compare against.

“The types of benefits we are seeing include general flock management, faster animal processing, identification of high performing and poor performing animals, faster data collection and analysis, quality assurance, and the potential for genetic improvement,” says Stolz.

As part of the pilot project, basic training sessions have been developed on how to use RF ID tags, tag readers and management software. Additional training will be offered to assist producers on how to generate management reports, and how they should determine what management changes should be incorporated.

“For any purebred sheep producer, having this type of record keeping is almost a must have in terms of flock management,” he says. “It eliminates paperwork entirely and it gives you instant updates to the marketability of the animal. There is also less chance for error as the information is collected electronically.”

With countless pieces of electronic technology available, the question has been how to make all the pieces work together. The system components that producers must purchase include: RFID tags, a handheld tag reader with software and a laptop loaded with the software management program. Software is the key to running all electronic systems. In year two, the pilot program evaluated different sheep management software programs. The program that best met the needs of producers and traceability was FarmWorks by Shearwell Data Ltd. It is now available commercially in Canada through the Canadian Co-operative Woolgrowers.

In addition to the basic system package there are supplementary components that add efficiencies in animal management. Grisnich has an electronic scale fitted with Bluetooth technology so the animal’s weight is entered into the system automatically. He says that producers should take into account the fact that a good electronic management and handling systems can reduce labour requirements, taking the place of another body on the farm.

Stolz points out that cost of the technology should be considered on a per animal basis, and across the number of years the system will be in place. He says producers should look at the net cost of the RFID tag over and above the cost of current the tags, and at the business and time efficiencies that can be gained by using them.

The pilot project is continually looking for new ways in which the technology could be used to improve the sheep business. A linking project at Sunterra Meats, Innisfail is developing a traceability module that will track individual carcass information using an electronic grading system developed by an Alberta company. The industry says it needs carcass feedback systems linking processors, producers and feedlots. RFID technology provides carcass quality information that can be used for genetic improvement; and provides information to producers to help them make breeding and feeding decisions.

Grisnich adds that he thinks the fact that the sheep industry itself is finding a traceability solution will encourage other producers of the program’s validity. “I would rather we pick the program than have someone pick it for us,” he says. “We know what we need, we know what is useful and we’re pinpointing all the benefits that we can get from these tags. We’re doing what works for us, and we’re becoming more efficient. That’s the bottom line.”

Article courtesy of Alberta Lamb Producers.

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