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Mining big data for sheep breeding solutions

Thursday 23rd of July 2015

The sheep industry is awash with data, from micron measurements through to genome sequencing but until now it has been an overwhelming task for farmers to fully capture its value. The Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation is working to take the complexity out of data mining to unleash a new round of genetic gains and productivity improvements, writes CEO James Rowe.

The performance of any modern economy or successful business, including those in the sheep industry, is highly dependent upon information technology and communication. The collection, analysis and sharing of data is fundamental for genetic gain, informed management decisions, smart marketing and more efficient utilisation of labour. Information based on data adds value to almost all aspects of production, animal care and sheep meat processing. It will be a primary driver of improved productivity throughout the sheep supply chains.

A modern sheep industry should have a simple and robust data collection system drawing on the most costeffective data capture equipment and software available in many other industries. However, data collected for specific purposes, such as sheep genetic analysis, has been ‘locked’ within systems that are not generally used for other purposes such as on-farm management decisions or within flock selection purposes. And many of the current sheep industry databases exist on outdated platforms that date back to the 1990s. They are badly in need of modernisation and opening up to more widespread use.

Through its role as a research “cooperative”, bringing together 40 producer, industry and government organisations, the Sheep CRC has been working to unlock the potential of ‘big data’. In its first major foray in this space, the Sheep CRC has also worked in collaboration with Telstra and Pivotal Labs in San Francisco, one of the leading software development companies in the world.

The result is that this month the CRC will launch a new web-based app which will allow sheep producers and their business advisers to quickly mine the numbers and find the answers they are looking for when selecting breeding genetics.

In the same way that carsales.com.au and realestate.com.au have transformed the marketing options for housing and second hand automobiles, RamSelect.com.au offers ram buyers and breeders alike a new way of participating in the genetics market.

RamSelect.com.au will allow commercial producers to purchase rams using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) without the need for a detailed understanding of the data. It will also be an important marketing tool for breeders assisting clients to select ram teams.

RamSelect.com.au will be accessible on a computer or on tablet. It will search the Sheep Genetics databases – MERINOSELECT, LAMBPLAN and DOHNE – to quickly identify and rank rams for a defined breeding objective.

A few simple prompts and slider bars allow ram buyers to define:

• The breed and type of rams required

• The number of rams to be placed in the ranked list

• The region and/or stud to search

• The type of sale you want to attend – auction and/or private treaty

• The relative emphasis on traits that drive profit in different production systems

Within seconds, the user is then provided with a list of rams ranked for their specific, customised, breeding objectives. This list can be saved on a tablet or printed for sale day.

After buying rams, the user is reminded to return to RamSelect.com.au to save the list of rams purchased. In future years this information will be used to benchmark the flock and inform future ram purchases.

The secret to the effective use of tools like RamSelect.com.au is the accuracy of the data underpinning the decisions. The success of RamSelect.com.au will rely on breeders and their advisers keeping data and sale information up to date on the Sheep Genetics database, including whether rams are available for sale by auction or private treaty - information that will be used to create an electronic sale catalogue that can be searched using RamSelect.com.au.

The development of RamSelect.com.au is just the first step in the Sheep CRC’s program of enhanced data utilisation, with future apps planned in the areas of flock management and animal wellbeing. Aligned with this is our research in the area of eID, which is aiming to take the hard work out of data collection and analysis.

With better information at hand and with new ways of using it – many aspects of sheep breeding that we previously only dreamed of are now becoming possible. It is the Sheep CRC’s goal to make sure that what is now possible is made practical for everyday use by sheep producers around Australia.