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SheepNet exchanges tools to disseminate Body Condition Score and discusses benefits from Precision Livestock Farming

03 January 2019
Type Media Article

Dr. Alan Bohan & Dr. Tim Keady, Teagasc Animal and Grassland, Research and Innovation programme, Athenry, Co Galway.

SheepNet recently held its fourth Transnational Workshop in Alghero. Alghero is a town in the north-west of Sardinia where there is an important sheep farming industry focusing on the production of cheese. The workshop was attended by over 80 participants representing stakeholders from the 7 SheepNet countries and from Hungary, Israel, Brazil and Finland.

The meeting had a full program and focused on sharing and evaluating tools used in different countries to disseminate the Body Condition Scoring (BCS) ewes. The meeting also focused on the uptake of Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) and its potential benefits to the sheep sector.

On the first day the delegates visited two dairy sheep farms. The Michele Piras’ farm is medium sized with 420 Sarda ewes averaging 350 kg milk per lactation. The farmer also sold pedigree ewes and rams which formed an important portion of his income. The farm consisted of 90 ha: 20 woodland and 70 arable. The diet was based on grazing plus a unified or total mixed ration. Mean consumption per ewe annually is 400 kg maize silage, 150 kg ryegrass hay, 150 kg commercial concentrate and 125 kg cereals grain. Ruminal EID boluses and stick readers were used to identify animals for annual inventory and selection purposes (pedigree and monthly milk recording). Body condition score was undertaken by the farmer without any support of digital tools to collect and store data.

The second farm visited was Gianfranco Mangatia’s farm. This is a large farm consisting of 1,020 ewes, averaging 374 kg milk per lactation. The whole farm totalled 472 ha which included a tillage enterprise producing grass based forage crops, legume based forage crops, hay, haylage, barley and fava beans. The flock diet was based on grazing plus a unified or total mixed ration. Mean consumption per ewe annually is 230 kg of a mixture of barley, field beans, soya bean meal and beetroot pulp plus 330 kg of a mixture of grass hay, legumes hay and haylage. This farm used PLF for farmer management decisions. Ruminal EID boluses were used to record individual ewes for daily milk yield using a panel reader in the milking parlour. Pregnancy scanning and BCS data for individual ewes were recorded and stored through a stick reader linked to a smartphone with software for storing individual data and then producing the whole flock statistics. Both farms showed good results in terms of efficiency. The comparison of the two farms animated the discussion between delegations during the workshop.

The workshop started with the presentation of the Italian sheep sector. In Italy, the sheep dairy sector is more important than the sheep meat sector.  Sardinia contains approximately forty-five percent of the Italian sheep flock (around three millions ewes) and produces sixty-five percent of the Italian sheep milk production: around 300 million kg of milk processed into 50,000 tons of cheese. The most important product is the PDO Pecorino Romano cheese of which the majority is exported to the US.

The tools used in the participating countries to disseminate the BCS practice were presented. The delegations had the opportunity to appraise the different approaches and to propose new tools and systems to improve the transfer of knowledge in relation to BCS. The main conclusions were that dissemination efficiency may be improved by using either computer simulations to illustrate the innovative techniques or social networks to share updates and data, as well as specific training programs at school/college level.

The main tools for PLF and its applications for management were presented and demonstrated under the following headings: monitoring & flock management; health management & shed environment; nutrition, automatic feeders & feeding needs; reproduction, lambing & artificial insemination; pasture management, grazing, hill grazing; milking & milk. Each participant had the opportunity to visit three of these presentations and score the most interesting tools/applications. The three which achieved the highest scores were the EID weigh crate with auto drafter, walk over weighing scales and the GPS collars. These tools will be presented during the final SheepNet seminar in France next September.

The workshop continued with an interesting debate between the participants and a panel of four farmers from France, Italy Turkey and UK, who routinely rely on EID to manage their farms. The main conclusion was that PLF generally increases efficiency and profitability of sheep farms but its implementation must be accurately modulated according to the farm size. The cost of PLF was a limiting factor with many farmers stating it would not be a viable purchase without grant aid support. 

A practical course on lambing was undertaken at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Sassari which included practical demonstrations of lambing rope placement; stomach tubing lambs; injecting glucose into hypothermic lambs; colostrum assessment and storage, lamb post mortem examination…etc. Videos showing the contents of the course will be available soon on the SheepNet website.

At the AGRIS centre of Bonassai, the SheepNet national network facilitators had an interesting debate with Italian stakeholders on the main issues and opportunities of the sheep sector in Europe. The main questions were on which policies may be implemented to increase the profitability of sheep farming and to maintain this economic activity in less favoured areas.  

SheepNet will hold its next transnational workshop in Ireland next June and will hold its final seminar in France at the beginning of September 2019.

SheepNet is open to all EU countries, stakeholders, sheep producers. For further information: www.sheepnet.network