The international research community is showing interest in a new Australian sheep wellbeing program that has the goal of predicting which individual animals in a flock may be at risk.
The Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) has embarked on a five-year program to develop a new risk management system that will function in parallel with new and current automated animal monitoring systems.
If successful, these will underpin improved animal wellbeing and productivity through pro-active management by farmers as sheep reach key intervention thresholds, thereby reducing ill health and mortality and allowing for selection of more productive animals.
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of New England, Amanda Doughty, is leading one of the research projects within the CRC program, and received a very positive response to the Sheep CRC’s approach at the recent International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) 2014 Congress in Spain.
"We’re not just trying to eliminate wellbeing and health issues, but also respond to future needs that we can anticipate for an individual animal," Dr Doughty said.
"The response to the CRC’s approach to proactive management of wellbeing was really positive and supportive because the scientific community knows that this is a very difficult field and that developing a methodology that is easily used in an extensive sheep grazing system will take time to achieve.
"There is growing interest around the world in animal wellbeing and it was encouraging to know that other research agencies view this long-term work as being built on sound fundamentals."
Operating as part of the Federal Department of Industry’s CRC program, the Sheep CRC is a collaboration of industry, government and the commercial sector. It is working to increase the productivity and profitability of the sheep industry through adoption of new technologies in both the meat and wool supply chains.
Dr Doughty also held discussions with current Sheep CRC collaborator Professor Cathy Dwyer from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), on progress being made by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Animal Welfare Indicators (AWIN) groups to ensure that the model developed in Australia is consistent with European and UK approaches to sheep wellbeing and health.
"All of the researchers I spoke with were very impressed with the quality of data already available from the CRC’S Information Nucleus program," Dr Doughty said.
Dr Doughty’s initial trials in this area investigated whether behavioural patterns – such as day to day changes in the ‘roll call’ or order of sheep as they walk to a feeding point – could act is an early indicator of future health or wellbeing issues.
"While the preliminary trials did not reveal any clear indicators for immediate use, the information helped identify a number of areas worth further investigation," she said.
"For example, ewes with the highest worm egg counts were found to have the most movement within the roll call – further research is needed on this finding to test whether a change in behaviour could be an early sign of a parasitic infection."
Further data will be collected at UNE’s Kirby Research Station as soon as the next drop of lambs is born later this month.
Using radio frequency animal identification and walk-over-weighing systems, a range of measurements will be taken at different times in the animals’ lives to calculate indexes that rank animals in terms of their wellbeing and productivity.
"Integration of data collected at different times on individual animals will facilitate better-informed decisions on selection and management of the flock," Dr Doughty said.
"The goal is to develop management systems whereby farmers are able to alter management when sheep reach key threshold indicators in order to prevent compromised wellbeing in the future."
More information on the Sheep CRC’s animal wellbeing research program is available by clicking here.
Media contact: Michael Thomson on 07 4927 0805 / 0408 819 666