Smart tech puts remote screening of sheep reproduction and welfare in reach

Dr Edward Narayan pictured with the University's flock on Hawkesbury campus

Western Sydney University researchers and the Stress Lab team are leading a world-first study that will trial the application of smart technology to monitor behaviour, in combination with physiological and epigenetic changes, in Merino sheep reproduction.

The study will remotely monitor the effects of shearing on sheep behaviour using the smart tag technology developed by Australian Wool Innovation.

In particular, the monitoring will focus on shearing frequency and reproductive milestones and will include assessment of the sheep’s movement, feedbase interactions and reproductive outcomes to produce a template of new biomarkers that will boost sheep reproduction programs.

Research lead, Dr Edward Narayan from the School of Science and Health, highlights that: “An anticipated result of this study is to gain a better understanding of the changes that occur in utero in Merino lambs under shearing frequency, with the results to have significant commercial and scientific value.”

“Reproductive wastage of viable embryos and lambs is an important problem in the livestock industry and the results of this study could contribute to reducing it. Through this new research, we will obtain real-time scientific information on the reproductive status, behaviour and physiology of maternal ewes and the data applied to better understand the nexus of maternal-foetal environmental interactions and overall productivity,” says Dr Narayan.

With the long-term aim of Dr Narayan’s current research to provide a deeper understanding of the lifetime production traits in Merino sheep, it’s anticipated the study will help make remote health screening of mothers and lambs using new smart technology a reality.

“The greater goal at hand is to move away from solely assessing DNA to a more holistic approach that includes the examination of environmental factors we know impact DNA at a molecular level, which is known as epigenetics.

“The sophistication of non-invasive technologies such as smart tags, Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) and wool based reproductive and stress hormone monitoring is at a point now where remote screening of sheep reproduction and welfare is a real possibility,” says Dr Narayan.

The study will also pave the way for producers to monitor environmental impacts on their own flocks using data from smart tags directly transmitted to mobile phones.

“Producers want to understand the ecological systems better within their landscapes. They want to evaluate the point at which they function optimally, understand responses to shearing to improve productivity but at the same time improve maternal health, lambing percentages and overall welfare of their valuable sheep flock.

“Location tracking for stock isn’t new but this application could be advantageous for sheep-on-farm reproductive productivity and whole-farm profitability,” says Dr Narayan.

The study will be funded by an Australian Wool Innovation grant with results expected late 2019.

Dr Narayan will be assisted by a group of researchers from Western Sydney University’s Stress Lab.

Masters candidate Gregory Sawyer, who explored the use of wool as an indicator of reproductive health in livestock in his recent research, will contribute his expertise in remote monitoring.

Sustainable agriculture and food security undergraduate students, Dylan Fox, 20, and Ryan Smith, 22, who have been awarded Australian Wool Education Trust scholarships will assist with monitoring and analysis in the field and laboratory.

ENDS

21 January 2019

Photo: Hugo Munoz

Ali Sardyga, Media Officer