Wearable motion sensors are being attached to sheep and cows on farms across Australia to provide powerful insights into the health and wellbeing of these animals.
Scientists at La Trobe University created the sensors - which analyse movement data much like a Fitbit that is worn by a human – to help farmers understand and act on an individual animal’s behaviour.
Dr Aniruddha Desai, director of La Trobe’s Centre for Technology Infusion, said the technology has the potential to transform farmers’ understanding of their livestock, which will lead to a significant economic benefit.
“The next generation of low cost and low weight sensors and the data they provide can bring the human factor back into farming,” Desai said.
“In the past, farmers got to know the habits of their individual animals. However, with large scale farming, that is now impossible and current systems of video monitoring are highly inaccurate.”
The scientists have carried out studies over the past three on three farms; a dairy farm in Tatura, sheep farm in Greta, and beef farm in Winchelsea.
“Our work has shown the potential of such technology to address important industry problems in Australia such as high lamb mortality rate in sheep and improving feed efficiency and pasture utilisation in both dairy and beef industries,” said Lab Trobe’s science leader for the program, Dr Mark Jois.
The university will soon bring the technology to market so it can be applied across the broader local farming industry.
“Response from the farmers with whom we’ve worked has been unanimously positive and we are now seeking commercial partners to help make this technology a reality,” Desai said.
One issue wearable technology is hoping to address is the premature deaths of lambs, which has significant economic and welfare impacts on the Australian sheep industry. As many as 30 per cent of lambs will die within 48 hours after they are born, the university said.
Lamb mortality is particularly high in lambs born to Merino ewes, which are known for their poor mothering ability. This high death rate is not only a preventable cost and an animal welfare issue but it also disturbs breeding programs, the university said.
Dr Jois said placing smart sensors on ewes and lambs enables farmers to identify ewes with strong maternal bonding with their lambs.
“The new smart technology and resulting data has already proven highly successful in understanding the interaction between ewes and their offspring and we also now know how physically close together they are,” he said.
“By looking at distance and the interaction between the dam and lamb using the sensors, we can understand which mothers are more likely to look after their lambs and select them for breeding, therefore reducing lamb mortality.”
La Trobe scientists also analysed the behaviours of cows using the sensors. They measured behaviours such as biting, chewing, and ruminating. They analysed the data, correlating the results with growth and health metrics of the cow.
This helps farmers understand the causes of poor growth of beef cattle – observed in the winter months – and develop intervention strategies, the university said.
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