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Beyond the Bale : June 2015
38 ON FARM Three years ago, fifth generation woolgrower James Walker from Longreach in Queensland, was more than 15,000km from home, in a baseball stadium in New York – all as part of a quest to improve the productive performance of his sheep. James farms 15,000 Merinos on a mixed enterprise pastoral property with highly variable rainfall year to year. He had serious concerns about the viability of creating a repeatable production model in his part of the world; so with the assistance of an AWI- supported Nuffield Scholarship, he set about researching better ways of managing livestock through the variances of seasons. “Getting a suite of data in real-time on, for instance, weights and condition score, would allow us to manage our enterprise without subjective management,” he said. “In a 5000-head flock at $120 per head per lamb, if you are able to increase lambing percentages from 40 per cent to 100 per cent, you could increase your gross income by $360,000, from $240,000 to $600,000 annually, so there’s plenty of opportunity if we research aggressively.” So how did James end up in a baseball stadium in New York? Interestingly, with his Nuffield Scholarship, James didn’t simply identify sheep industry hotspots around the world to visit and learn from – his was a much broader process. “Usually if an innovation is found in the sheep industry around the world it has already been communicated, so I decided to have a look outside the industry to research how they manage ‘organisms’ in the sporting, medical and military fraternities and also the zoological fraternity, just to try and bring in some new ideas.” James was particularly struck by methods in the sporting fraternity for managing elite athletes, which involved measuring what’s known as ‘terminal fatigue’. It’s a management technique which ensures athletes are taken off the field prior to reaching a fatigue level from which they can’t recover, meaning when they re-enter the event, they can have a high impact and be more likely to affect the course of the game. “You’ll notice these days that athletes come off relatively fresh onto the sideline, whereas in years gone past they were absolutely spent and left everything out on the field. Money of course is also very important to sporting teams, so high level management of their athletes’ ‘organisms’ gives them a better chance to advance through their competition and also attract more sponsorship.” Having seen how sporting teams manage their systems, James pondered how the techniques could be applied to animals to allow them to realise their biological potential. “Particularly what is fairly well known is ‘walk- over weighing’, and the algorithm between that and condition scores, but there’s a whole heap of other things that we can research.” Since completing his Nuffield Scholarship, James has been using the technology developed for monitoring the performance of elite athletes to develop ‘Paddock Pulse’ – to electronically monitor animal physiology in real-time to improve profitability, sustainability and animal welfare in the wool industry. “This data could provide an insight into flock dynamics and rank individuals on their feeding efficiencies; it could also identify weak or lame sheep, sheep that have a lamb and high performers,” James said. He also plans to fit sheep with accelerometers (like pedometers) to track the number of steps they take, a proxy for how much energy the animals are using and how far they travel to find food. Portable scales and condition scoring will complement the MONITORING SHEEP • From learning how elite athletes are managed on-field to how zoos benchmark their gorillas, 2012 Nuffield Scholarship recipient James Walker looked in some illuminating places to guide new ways of monitoring sheep to increase their performance. • James encourages woolgrowers to apply for the 2016 Nuffield Scholarship, saying the scholarship is a great opportunity for producers to look at farming’s opportunities and challenges from a new perspective. TO INCREASE PERFORMANCE James Walker from Longreach has been researching better ways of managing livestock through boom and bust years caused by highly variable rainfall. James at the New York Mets baseball stadium with the scoreboard behind him showing all the physiological data for one of the athletes in real-time.