Big data heralds a revolution

Big Data has arrived for commercial sheep production. Can the effort required to harness it pay dividends?

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Flock and pasture management along with production predictions are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Photo courtesy University of New England, Armidale.

Flock and pasture management along with production predictions are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Photo courtesy University of New England, Armidale.

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From genomic selection to weather forecasting big data is driving real change in agriculture with the potential to streamline supply chains. Is the time and money involved worth the extra cost?

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Big data is coming to a small production enterprise near you. Is it worth the time and money to embrace it?

Speakers at Saturday's Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association conference in Armidale gave numerous examples of how computer assisted problem solving will directly benefit producers, and smooth speed bumps along the supply chain - with potential to bring premium prices.

The first step is entering data - lots of it - from ram DNA to ewe condition scores, from dry matter in paddocks to final fleece weight. It's not a job for the faint hearted, but off-the-shelf technology like bar code scanners and docket printers make the job a lot easier. There are several subscription-paid programs on offer to log the data and work is on-going as to how best to share that information.

Big data can begin with genomics, carrying out an SNP test, at $20 a head, to narrow the family tree and define a flock's hereditable traits - like follicle curvature in super fine wool, the amount of wrinkle in a body or vulnerability to worms. Some producers can afford to test the lot, others might just test 10 per cent.

Reading an "SNP" report takes skill says Prof Julius Van Der Werf, from the University of New England. But there are are easy to see gene markers like those for horned and polled progeny. There is also a clear marker for tail-length, which may prove useful down the track if European buyers demand an end to tail-docking.

Senior development officer in sheep genetics with Meat and Livestock Australia, Peta Bradley, said new breeding value traits soon to be released will help producers focus on selecting for ewes that can wean the most lambs, perhaps not the ones who simply produce progeny.

"Lamb loss is a massive welfare concern," she said. "In the near future we can maintain litter size as it is and select for ewes that can rear those lambs."

Big data also helps to define paddock health. Producers can log dry matter, soil moisture, temperature and come away with a prediction that tries to determine body score in ewes at lambing, and finished lambs at the point of sale.

Progressive producers like Noel Henderson, Avington, Sidonia Vic, have embraced big data to select for plain sheep with fewer dags and brighter white wool to minimise flystrike.

"Through this process we have increased our wool cut well above what we previously cut since we ceased mulesing," he said, noting the property's clip produces wool at between 11.5 and 15 micron. "Through this we have demonstrated social responsibility."

Also at Avington, each fleece is tagged and laser-scanned, just like a pack of biscuits at the supermarket checkout counter, allowing classers to trace each fleece until it is assigned to a bin and then a bale. The resulting data can be used to monitor flock performance and to help with predictions of future production.

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