SheepNet farmers’ views on Precision Livestock Farming for sheep production
Drs Tim Keady and Alan Bohan Teagasc, Athenry, Co Galway
The availability of new technologies using electronic identification (EID), and Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) to manage livestock and reduce workload, is becoming more relevant for sheep farmers. However, the existing uses and uptake of these technologies in the EU is not known. SheepNet, an EU funded project involving the 6 main EU sheep producing countries and Turkey, provided the opportunity for farmers to discuss and exchange their views on PLF technologies, through a survey and by establishing durable exchange between scientists and stakeholders across the EU.
Answers were collated from the survey (http://www.sheepnet.network/node/510) across the 7 countries of SheepNet and Hungary. Although 64% of respondents agreed that EID and PLF were an opportunity for sheep farming, only 38% of respondents were actually equipped with tools that utilized the benefits of EID. The main motivations for having the equipment were more precise flock management, as well as for time saving and labour simplification with the major barriers being related to cost of equipment, flock size and accessibility of equipment.
The 4th SheepNet Transnational Conference held in Sardinia also focused on exchanging solutions and practices around the use of PLF for sheep management. Six main PLF tools were presented and discussed, namely for i) monitoring and managing the flock, ii) health management and shed environment, iii) nutrition (automatic feeders and feeding needs), iv) reproduction, lambing and artificial insemination, v) pasture and grazing management, and vi) milking and milk recording. The most popular tools were, in order of preference, 1) EID weigh crates with auto-sorter, 2) field weigh crates (Walk over Weigh), 3) GPS collars for locating sheep, 4) EID worming guns, 5) EID stick readers (with smartphone, tablets, etc.) for recording sheep movement, and the use of drone for pasture management. All tools are described on the SheepNet website (www.sheepnet.network).
The consensus of the conference and the survey was that PLF can be part of the solutions to help improve sheep management in Europe, but more exchange and information on the potential benefits and financial aid towards purchase are required.
SheepNet is an EU funded project focusing on ewe productivity. Ewe productivity (number of lambs reared per ewe joined) is a combination of reproduction success, embryonic and lamb survival and litter size. SheepNet is designed to stimulate knowledge exchange between research and stakeholders to widely disseminate the best practices and innovations, with the objective of increasing ewe productivity. SheepNet involves the 6 main EU sheep producing countries (Ireland, France, United Kingdom, Romania, Spain and Italy) and Turkey.
Is PLF a useful tool for sheep farmers?
In the EU all sheep are required to have electronic identification (EID). The availability of technologies using EID and precision livestock farming (PLF) to manage livestock and reduce workload is becoming more relevant for sheep farmers. Despite these developments, the uptake of PLF technology is a major issue in sheep systems. Barriers for adoption have been reported, but it is still unclear as to how wide the issue is, and what are the motivations behind farmers’ use (or lack of use) of PLF technologies.
SheepNet undertook a survey (http://www.sheepnet.network/node/510) in the seven main EU sheep countries (France, Ireland, UK, Spain, Italy, Romania and Hungary) and Turkey to determine the use of EID associated technologies and potential barriers to the uptake of PLF technologies.
Precision Livestock Farming was also one of the topics discussed during a recent SheepNet Transnational Conference held in Sardinia. More than 80 participants from the 7 SheepNet countries, as well as from Hungary, Israel and Finland, participated in the discussions. The workshop’s activities focused on the various PLF solutions available to sheep farmers including: 1) monitoring and managing the flock, 2) health management and shed environment, 3) nutrition (automatic feeders and feeding needs), 4) reproduction, lambing and artificial insemination, 5) pasture and grazing management, and 6) milking and milk recording.
PLF equipment levels and uses in European sheep farms
The SheepNet survey results were pooled with two other surveys undertaken in the UK and France (iSAGE - H2020 No 679302). The responses came from France (42%), Ireland (30%), UK (8%), Turkey (8%), Spain (5%), Italy (4%), Romania (2%) and Hungary (1%). The majority of respondents were from meat sheep farms (61%), followed by dairy sheep farms (26%) and multi-purpose sheep farms (13%).
In the survey, 38% of respondents were equipped with tools that utilised the benefits of EID. Four profiles were defined: 1) farmers equipped with an EID reader combined with farm management software (17%), 2) farmers equipped with both an EID reader and equipment using EID (e.g. EID weigh crate, EID automatic feeder, etc.; 14%), 3) farmers with only an EID reader (4%), and 4) farmers with only digital equipment (3%). Equipment level changed with the type of production, with the dairy flocks being the most equipped (62%), and the multi-purpose ewes flocks the least (16%); the meat flocks were intermediate (33%). The level of PLF farm equipment also differed by country. In Turkey, Ireland and Spain 75% of respondents did not use PLF equipment. Meanwhile in Romania, Spain and Italy, 83% of the farmers who answered the survey used PLF equipment.
Two major uses of PLF were identified: recording animal movement (60% - 80% of farmers who used PLF equipment, depending on type of production) and sorting/drafting sheep into management groups (45% - 55% of farmers who used PLF equipment, depending on type of production). Electronic identification was used for automatic recording of animal weights in meat sheep production (40%) and for recording pedigree information for breeding in multi-purpose sheep production (almost 40%).
Farmers’ views on PLF technologies
The majority of farmers (64%) agreed that sheep EID was an opportunity for sheep farming. All farmers, regardless of flock size, shared this vision. The lowest number of positive responses was from the flocks with less than 199 ewes, which had a percentage of “Yes” around 50%. Conversely, 80% of the largest flocks (more than 500 ewes) thought that EID was an opportunity.
The main motivation for PLF equipment was to improve flock management and facilitate the recording of flock data for management purposes, followed by time saving and reduced labour. Modernisation, data sharing and welfare improvement did not appear to be triggers in the investment in PLF equipment. The main reasons for not using EID, as ranked by farmers, were the cost of equipment, flock size and accessibility to the equipment.
During the recent SheepNet Transnational Conference in Sardinia, participants concurred with these findings, and voted on what they perceived as the best PLF solutions for sheep farmers. The most favoured tools were, in order of preference: 1) EID weigh crates with auto-sorter, 2)field-weigh crates (Walk over Weigh), 3)GPS collars for locating sheep, 4) EID worming guns, 5) EID stick readers (with smartphone, tablets, etc.) for recording sheep movement and the use of drones for pasture management.
Sheep production is in a favourable position to develop PLF (with widespread use of EID and expansion of new digital technologies such as smartphones), and sheep farmers see the technologies as an opportunity for improving sheep production and management. However, to promote wider use of the equipment, a cost/benefit analysis of investments should be carried out as well as a better communication on the possible benefits. Financial support (grant aid) to purchase the technology would also greatly help. SheepNet (www.sheepnet.network) is an ideal platform to allow these exchanges between existing scientific and practical knowledge, innovative technologies and best practices.
SheepNet is open to all EU countries, stakeholders, sheep producers. For further information: