Fitness tracking sheep

Posted by Katie Alsop on April 18 2017 in Agriculture

Our romanticised, and already incorrect, image of a shepherd huddling in their hut with a warm bowl of soup, after a long day of caring for their sheep, needs to be updated.

No longer is the shepherd or farmer blowing over a steaming bowl of tomato soup. Instead, their face is illuminated by a laptop, and they haven’t spent the last eight hours monitoring their flock. Instead, after a short period of irreplaceable observation to check all is well with their flock, technology has gently taken them by the shoulder and ushered them towards other pressing duties. They’re just checking in to see what their sheep have been up to in their absence.

By now, we’re all at least somewhat familiar with fitness tracking technology, or, as they're more scientifically known, ActiGraphic movement sensors. Either we’ve tracked our steps with a Fitbit or one of its competitors, or know someone who has. What we’re less familiar with however is this technology being used to track sheep.

The Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia (DAFWA) have begun testing a prototype based on the technology we’re familiar with having around our wrists, but in this case, it will be attached to sheep much like a dog collar. .

The idea is that if a farmer can place trackers on each sheep in a flock, they will be able to see whether their sheep are moving around enough, how much time each sheep spends grazing, and whether all the sheep are visiting water points regularly. All this data can be collected while the farmer concentrates on other tasks, and means they no longer need to observe the sheep as much and can rely on the technology to flag any concerns without their presence.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that this technology will replace the farmer’s knowledge and expertise around the sheep, but instead will help free up extra time to the often numerous other tasks the farmers has to attend to, without any detriment to the sheep. Technology remains a logical, statistics-driven tool and the farmer is still the very much required wielder. A tracker may be able to count steps, but won’t detect a limping sheep. The technology isn’t a replacement for the farmer, but rather a piece of equipment, much like a tractor, that should be used responsibly.

The biggest selling point, however, according to DAFWA sheep production research officer Beth Paganani, is being able to maximise the efficiency of breeding by determining which lamb is with which ewe, by monitoring how often the two sheep interact daily. Currently, the way in which farmers do this is through either observation, which can be an extremely time-consuming process, or through blood samples, which is also labour intensive and financially expensive. Being able to track sheep and look for this sort of data on a computer would free up a lot of time for other important tasks.

It’s not just sheep which are going digital. A similar tracker exists for cows, its primary purpose being to help prevent cattle rustling, by allowing the farmer to track their cattle and be aware of any sudden movement.

Currently, the technology is in its infancy stage, and the sheep tracker has a battery life of roughly 14 days, at which point it needs to be removed, recharged and reprogrammed. If it is to go beyond a prototype, Beth Paganani is confident that the technology will improve and the battery life will increase.

A suggested price point from Ms Paganani is $5 per tag, which she believes is viable because while the technology may not be directly money-saving, the idea is that it can help improve flock breeding and therefore increase revenue over a longer term.

The technology is still some distance away from being ready to be a commercial product, and there’s currently no release date for when these trackers will be available to farmers.