Technology in sheep production

by Sally Colby

At the first Lamb Summit held recently in Fort Collins, CO, 200 sheep producers and industry leaders from across the nation gathered for a variety of educational sessions designed to showcase the latest in sheep production.

Dr. Reid Redden, Texas A&M sheep and goat specialist, and Jake Thorne, Texas A&M Extension associate, discussed and demonstrated several pieces of technology of interest to producers of small ruminants.

Redden is continually testing technology at the Research and Extension Center. “From a philosophical standpoint, technology generally creates more work – especially learning how to implement new technology,” he said. “It all builds on itself. It’s easy to buy something and get started with it, but it’s harder to see where it fits in the big picture and how to implement it to where it makes money for you.”

Redden encourages producers to look at available technology, but to always have a goal in mind. “I’m a huge proponent of technology,” he said, “but it can be frustrating if you don’t have a good plan, and over time, you’ll stop implementing technology.”

In his travels, Redden has seen a variety of innovative tools that increase productivity and lower costs. He said one of the best tools available is the Lifetime Ewe Management (LTEM) program in Australia. “People who went through the program and implemented the technology increased their farm output by $50,000 a year,” he said. “The only thing they did was body condition score (BCS) the ewes, pregnancy scanning so they knew which animals needed a targeted amount of feed, then matched feed resources to the ewes that needed it.”

The message from simple body scoring is that producers should always first implement known, proven technology and practices. Redden said in the U.S., we produce an average 110% lamb crop, but that figure could increase if more producers manage flocks so that the majority of ewes produce twins.

Redden said at the very least, BCS of ewes should be a regular practice, with a score of 3 as ideal. Ewes in poor body condition 30 days before breeding season should be sorted and fed differently to pick up a potential 10 – 15% additional lamb crop.

There’s ample research on the value of scoring ewes. “Ewes that were over 2.75 BCS that had a single lamb didn’t need to eat more,” said Redden, citing a study. “If they were fed more, it was wasted feed and it’s more likely to lead to dystocia. Ewes with twins needed a BCS closer to 3.5, and with that score, there was a 15% increase in lamb survival and 45% reduction in ewe mortality.”

In order to determine which ewes are carrying multiples and require more feed, pregnancy scanning is necessary. Redden said ideally, ewes should be 60 days into pregnancy. “Preferably 60 to 90 days after the rams go in; preferably 30 to 40 days after they come out,” he said. He added that when lambs are at 90 days gestation, it’s not as easy to count them because they’re larger and more difficult to pick up on ultrasound.

Producers report that scanning ewes and feeding them in separate groups is more work, but overall they fed less and gained significant savings on feed costs. Ultrasound isn’t a low-cost investment and requires training and practice, but it can pay off in lower feed costs and potentially higher survival rates because ewes are managed for the number of lambs they’re carrying.

Jake Thorne discussed and demonstrated a needle-free pulse injection system. “What attracted us to that technology was efficiency,” he said. “We can give shots as fast as we can run the animals through a chute. But the other big benefit is that it decreases the risk of disease transmission.” The injection system can significantly cut losses resulting from contagious, debilitating diseases such as OPP (ovine progressive pneumonia) and CL (caseous lymphadenitis).

The pulse injection system involves the operator wearing a vest to hold the various components. A CO2 tank in one pouch provides pressure to blow the vaccine through the skin, and the vaccine is held in another pouch. “It’s between a subcutaneous and intramuscular injection,” said Thorne. “It’s really fast and less stressful on the animal.” He added that there’s no need to restrain the animal further than in the chute, and it doesn’t require filling a syringe and changing needles. Injection pressure can be adjusted and dosage can be metered.

“People are concerned about whether wool hinders the injection,” said Thorne. “In my experience, it isn’t a big deal. It might be a little tougher if they have a full 12-month fleece, but an inch and a half of wool is no problem. The thing to make sure of is that the needle goes in perpendicular to the skin. At an angle, it won’t go all the way through.” Injections should always be administered according to good husbandry practices and industry standards, avoiding muscle in the most valuable cuts. Thorne added that the system was originally developed for the hog industry when there was a lot of trouble with broken needles. With a price tag of around $3,000, the system is costly, but the benefits of increased efficiency and decreased risk of disease transmission may outweigh that cost.

Redden said for those using livestock guardian dogs, there’s the well-known problem of keeping them where they belong, or at least knowing where they are. Again, technology might be the answer. One locator system provides real-time information about dogs’ whereabouts; another is placed on the dog and then data regarding the dog’s location can be retrieved.

There are also several GPS options for tracking dogs. “You can set a geofence around your place, and as soon as the dog leaves, it starts sending text messages to your phone,” said Redden. “You can see where they’ve gone and when they’re going.” An asset tracker that runs on a lithium ion battery may also be an option. This device requires a cell signal, so in areas of poor reception the battery drains quickly.

Redden said the middle ground between socializing a dog so it can be caught versus an essentially feral dog that can’t be caught is a difficult balance. He’s currently working on research involving bonding pens and other techniques to socialize dogs enough that they can be caught but not to the point they’re always at the gate.

In summarizing technology for sheep producers, Redden said, “You need technology that’s going to make you money or save you money, not just spend money.”

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