Sheep happy to draft themselves

Sheep at the automatic drafting gates. Data about individual sheep is captured electronically.
Sheep at the automatic drafting gates. Data about individual sheep is captured electronically.

Remote drafting of sheep, where they are divided into groups without the need to be taken to yards or to involve human labour, is now a reality.

And the reason appears to be, in part, that the sheep are happy to draft themselves.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) researchers, working through the Australian Sheep Industry Cooperative Research Centre, are investigating new technologies for managing individual traits in sheep in order to improve productivity and environmental management.

According to DPI Principal Research Scientist, Dr Kevin Atkins, remote drafting – which requires sheep to walk through drafting gates and separate into groups – opens the way for new ways of managing sheep.

“Sheep are incredibly inquisitive – and remote drafting, without humans around, appears to suit their natural curiosity”, Dr Atkins said.

The researchers initially thought that an attractant - like food or water - would be needed to encourage sheep to go through the gates voluntarily.

It was also expected that at least some of the sheep would need training to ‘lead the mob’.

Dr Atkins said that if sheep feel comfortable they appear to let their inquisitiveness take over.

The research has involved developing “walk-over weighing” systems to collect liveweights from individual sheep, identified from electronic ear tags.

DPI researcher Steve Semple, in conjunction with CAWD Engineering, recently designed and constructed a remote sheep drafter that will operate from a computer program and allow sheep to be divided into groups dictated by a drafting list.

The drafter has been operating continuously at the Orange Agricultural Institute since mid-October in a small paddock with about 40 sheep. For most of this period, between 40 and 130 sheep were drafted on each day.

Dr Atkins said that this was an average of 1 to 3 drafts per animal per day. “Almost every animal walked through the draft each day.”

Enough information was collected via the remote drafter to suggest that, with some modifications, the device will operate at close to 100% accuracy (The Orange trial achieved 95%).

Another pleasing outcome was that the drafter was transported to Trangie to test its mobility. It took only 40 minutes to be set up and more than 100 sheep were drafted in a little over 2 minutes.

Dr Atkins said that considering the device was originally intended for use with a "trained" mob of sheep, which were used to a "walk over weighing" system, this field test was very encouraging.

Research trials are continuing.