The power of e-technology

By Ken Geenty

In Business, Livestock8 Minutes
Grow Safe equipment used for paddock liveweight measurements. Source: Grow Safe Systems Ltd.

E-technologies enable easy capture and handling of pasture and animal liveweight data. The advancements mean more precise and effective animal management. The rewards are improved profits and better facilitation of genetic improvement in sheep and cattle.

The equipment comes at considerable cost so your first question will be what are the benefits? Some of these include –


  • Pasture meters give objectivity to what was previously subjective visual assessments, with increased accuracy
  • Strategic liveweight recording provides weight gains and importantly variation within the mob. Invaluable for feeding management, lamb drafting and genetic selection.
  • Walk-over weighing is much less labour intensive than manual and with auto-drafting can enable preferential feeding and animal health applications
  • Feed intake measurements accompanying liveweights allow estimates in cattle of all-important feed conversion efficiency.

Applying dollar values for cost-benefit analysis is difficult but the general consensus is that benefits far outweigh costs. There are also intangibles such as the feel-good factor of having use of whizz-bang gear. For ‘best estimate’ cost-benefits liaise with key farming friends or your appropriate rural professional.

The underlying mantra being ‘good information leads to good decisions’.

Many of the observations discussed here come from this author’s time working with the Sheep Cooperative Research Centre in Australia. However similar available equipment in New Zealand is wide ranging and often comes with training and data management packages. Well-known suppliers such as Tru-test, Allflex and Gallagher have extensive information on their websites.

Available pasture meters include both hand-held and mobile versions for use with your farm bike. Both are equally effective with the correct protocols but the bike option is much faster.

Automated weighing and drafting of sheep relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) ear-tags recorded by an electronic tag reader. For practical reasons there is also a corresponding visual tag number.

Some of the applications developed include:

The most commonly used application has been walk-over weighing. This involves a raceway with weighing scales and a tag reader.

Sheep can either be manually moved through the system or left to voluntarily walk over the scales. The latter usually requires an incentive for the sheep such as moving to a fresh paddock or to access supplementary feed. Most tag readers also record time and date of weighing with the data able to be easily downloaded to a computer for further processing.

Auto drafting sheep

The auto-drafting option has the additional ability of drafting sheep according to pre-set criteria such as particular weight ranges. This can allow for sheep below a certain target weight to be preferentially drafted off to feed supplements with a re-cycling setup as shown in the Figure 1 diagram.

Normally sheep would be allowed to voluntarily use the system. In this experiment half of the paddock mob, or controls, not being drafted to supplement needed to be manually moved over the walk-over-weighing (WOW) platform periodically for comparative weights. The supplemented sheep offered rationed lupin grain often passed through the setup several times daily, before returning to the main mob. They gained an additional maternal liveweight of more than 5kg during pregnancy. Up to 78% of the 400 ewes in the project voluntarily passed over the WOW platform daily.

Some farmers use a similar system for targeted animal health treatments including drenching for internal parasites. A larger-scale farmer with about 10,000 ewes has been quoted as saying auto-drafting of lighter animals for preferential parasite treatment saved him some $30,000 in drench costs.

The Pedigree Matchmaker option simply involves having a walk-over weighing and recording setup strategically placed in a paddock during the lambing period. As ewes walk over the system followed by their lamb(s) the tag numbers are recorded in sequence so the data can identify lambs belonging to each ewe. This avoids disruption of manually tagging lambs and recording their mothers in the paddock during lambing. And the liveweight data is useful for early lactation management.

Innovative measure

Similar auto-weighing equipment for cattle is available and with the addition of feeder load cells allows innovative measurement of feed intake and animal growth. Undoubtedly there is great potential for NZ use in evaluation of feed conversion efficiency (FCE).

Australian research has shown a good correlation between animal feedlot FCE with that of pasture. Similar componentry equipment to that used by Growsafe is available in various forms in NZ.

The information, accessed live and retrospectively on a stand-alone computer system, enables recording of vast quantities of feed intake and live weight performance data. Feed intake and liveweight trends over time can also be used for management in commercial feedlots with identification of slow growing animals with health or behavioral problems.

Estimates of bull or progeny FCE from residual feed intake (RFI) over a 50-70 day recording period can be derived from feedlot data.

Residual feed intake

RFI is the difference between measured feed intake and expected intake from published values for maintenance and growth. The lower or negative values are best. Since feed represents about 70% of production costs selection for low RFI is very beneficial as it has a moderate heritability of 35- 40%. Availability of multiple liveweights allows accurate estimates of feed intake to liveweight gain ratios or FCE.

Use of the Growsafe technology is more prevalent in Australia where feedlotting of cattle and sheep is much more widespread than in NZ. However there are opportunities here to set up more sire and/or progeny group tests for RFI on farms with feedlot facilities or on already established feedlots.

The Hawke’s Bay based Rissington Cattle Company has Growsafe equipment for feed conversion estimates.

Overseas Growsafe are developing pasture-based applications where animals are lured into weighing stalls with supplementary feed. This author understands there are also pasture intake measurement techniques under development by Grow Safe and collaborators.

Horowhenua-based farm consultant Ron Halford said uptake of e-technologies in his experience is a ‘trickle’. It is hoped this improves soon to a slow-flowing stream for benefits to sheep and beef cattle farmers.

Ken Geenty is a primary industries consultant.