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New technology shapes historic family farm

01 February 2024

The roots of his family farm may reach back almost 200 years, but Tasmanian sheep producer Russ Fowler is using new technology to help his business flourish.

Here, Russ shares why he decided to become an early adopter of electronic identification tags (eIDs) and how data-informed decision-making is benefitting his business.

Shifting with the times

The seventh-generation sheep producer’s family began breeding Merinos at the foothills of Tasmania’s central highlands in 1825. Not surprisingly, Russ said the business has weathered many changes since then.

“We’ve gone from just a handful of paddocks in those early days, to more than 3,000ha today,” he said. “The business itself has evolved into a mixed farming enterprise comprised mainly of composite sheep, with some cattle and irrigated cropping.”

Over the past decade, the Fowlers’ stock numbers have jumped from 6,000 ewes to around 10,000, with a third of this growth coming in the last three years alone. Russ attributes this to their shift away from Merinos into the simpler easy-care composite breeds.

Early adopter

The business has been using electronic tags for more than a decade and began tagging all lambs from birth in 2018.

The technology was more flexible and efficient than manual recording, allowing them to monitor weight gains in the yards and make on-the-spot decisions.

“Initially, it was a simple tool we used to monitor weight or eye muscle depth. But we’ve become more sophisticated in how we’re using the data and we’re getting real commercial insights as a result,” Russ said.

“For instance, we can see if weights or lambing percentages rise when sheep are in a particular paddock. In the past, we couldn’t quantify those gains but the individual data we now draw from our electronic tags is giving us clear indicators and helping us identify those benefits.”

Creating value

Traditionally, the Fowlers finished all lambs on-farm, but as they transition to a fully composite flock, Russ anticipates production will far outweigh available feed and they will need to focus more on the store lamb market.

“We’re using eIDs to record each of our store lambs the whole way through,” he said. “This helps us put together a really good saleable item for those buyers, and also gives them an extra layer of useful information about the animal.”

For example, he weans triplets at 45 days and introduces them to grain very early on. Normally, lamb condition slips a bit after weaning, but the eIDs show these lambs are gaining an average 200g/head/day during the first three weeks.

“That means when they arrive at the finisher’s property those lambs are ready to go forward, and the buyer will be able to see that in the data.”

Growing numbers

During a flock growth phase, Russ retained his dry ewe lambs, joining them the following year. He tracked their individual progress using eID and found a third of them produced triplets, while only 10% of the entire group were dry a second time.

“Everyone thinks if you have a dry ewe lamb it must be infertile so get rid of it. Instead, we found these were just late maturing, probably because they were out of a triplet and had a lower body weight,” he said. “They just needed more time to mature, but without individualised eID data, we wouldn’t have been able to determine that.”

Identifying small but significant issues

In December 2021, the farm had a bout of pneumonia, which wasn’t diagnosed until the following March. While the lambs looked okay, the weights Russ was seeing from the eID data were telling a different story.

“We were seeing 150g/day weight gains, when normally they’d be gaining 200g/day,” he said. “When we finally suspected pneumonia in March, the eIDs meant we could easily pull the lightest lambs out to biopsy and get a definitive diagnosis.”

Russ said this highlighted the importance of being able to identify small but significant changes and make data-informed decisions.

“The real win for us was that we knew early on we weren't getting the weight gains we needed, so we weren't booking those lambs in only to find out months later that we couldn’t fulfill those contracts,” he said.

Controlling what you can

Russ has been surprised by the rapid rate of change in the sheep market this year.

“Normally, when prices drop, it's a gradual thing off the back of a bad season but this time round it's been a cliff face,” he said. “It’s highlighted how little we can really control in this industry, and I think that’s often what brings people down and causes a lot of the mental health issues we see.

“We’re so vulnerable to those changing conditions, but if you’ve got the data to make informed decisions or see what you're doing right, I think that can make a big difference when you’re trying to deal with things that are out of your control.”

Refining sheep genetics

Going forward, Russ sees eIDs having a significant role to play in realising the value of the work he’s doing to refine his stock’s genetics.

“At the moment, prices are driven by the sheep’s breeding rather than the quality of the meat. They drop as you move down from a Merino to a first cross, but there will be second crosses that are just as a good as Merinos,” he said. “We just need to be in a position where we can back that up with data.”

That means using the eID to track stock all the way through the supply chain and improving the quality and scope of the abattoir data – moving beyond dressing percentage or weight.

“At the moment, most of the value we’re getting from the eID lies in how we’re using or interpreting the weight monitoring data. But if we can start looking at what's happening through the whole process at the abattoir, we’ll start to see benefits flow through to our genetics,” he said.

“That’s when producers who are doing the work and delivering that higher quality product will start being rewarded for it.”