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Cyber-Flocks

Posted: November 29, 2012

With high tech advancements and innovative ideas, the Alberta lamb industry continues to find ways to improve management and productivity.

Shepherding is changing and Alberta producers are adopting new advancements in technology to improve their management results. From hardware like the most efficient Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and electronic scales to flock management software such as FarmWorks, SheepBytes and Flock Snapshot, Alberta is quickly becoming a global leader in using technology to turn an ancient way of life into a modern and profitable business.

For the last five years, a leading-edge collaborative research project conducted by Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP), Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD), and industry stakeholders has studied RFID technology for its management benefits. In addition to supporting higher returns for producers RFID can also provide automated traceability, a critical factor in disease management and modern marketing.

As results are being realized by Alberta producers using RFID, other Canadian and international sheep organizations are following the innovations in our province as models of progressive agricultural businesses.

"We have now amassed a strong body of data on best practices, RFID technology for traceability, and the advantages of software applications in the honing of producers businesses. Not all software and hardware advances are right for every producer. For mid- to large-sized operations, the kind of data they can have at their fingertips has been proven to support reduction in costs and increased productivity. Those two key factors lead to improved profitability and better quality lamb products for the market." states Susan Hosford of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. "Producers with flocks of any size can benefit. The findings, experiences and information can be applied to all sheep businesses, automated or not."

More recently the focus has been on testing and rolling out applications that allow producers to capture, analyze and report on the important business data they are collecting. SheepBytes, an online cloud-based software application, provides optimum feed rations for each stage of lamb growth as well as managing feed costs, one of the most expensive components of raising sheep. It is another result of strong industry collaboration supported by funding from the Alberta Livestock & Meat Agency.

With over forty percent of the cost of getting a lamb to market being feed, this tool helps adjust feeding rations so they are more cost effective and provide optimal flock nutrition for sheep in every stage of production. The power of a tool like SheepBytes is evident when you look at the numbers. Top performing flocks had a feed cost of $44 per lamb less than the lowest performing flocks studied. With 130,000 lambs slaughtered in federal and provincial Alberta facilities in 2011 it is easy to see how increasing performance can save producers millions of dollars of in feed cost in one year.

"We know that these electronic tools are helping our members to get better results. That is why sheep industry representatives from as far away as New Zealand and Asia have come to study what we are doing here in Alberta. We're the only province in Canada that has seen a significant increase in flock size in the past few years. Part of that growth can be attributed to improved management practices and a willingness to lead the way in adopting advanced technology." says Margaret Cook, Executive Director of the Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP).

Big on results, SheepBytes is simple to use and can be accessed via computer, cell phone or mobile applications. Users can input their own feed test results or use the generic "Feeds Library" which includes average analysis of feeds from Eastern and Western Canada. With access to accurate, quick information, producers gain greater control, earn better returns and can also share the information with everyone from veterinarians and nutritionists to consultants. A free SheepBytes demonstration and subscription information is available at www.sheepbytes.ca.

While SheepBytes creates better feed efficiencies, the Flock Snapshot collates cost of production information. Flock Snapshot is a tool created in collaboration by ALP and ARD during the Precision Flock Management project. The project was managed by Sue Hosford of ARD and funded by ALMA. It helps producers identify profit leaks in their flocks. They enter data from financial and production records and the software does all the calculations for them. They can then compare their own flock's performance from year to year, set targets for their flock and monitor whether or not the target was achieved. It also gives them an idea of how their operation is doing compared to other operations across the province.

With market fluctuations, increasing foreign competition and increasing costs continuing to challenge producers today, ALP and ARD are committed to finding new ways to encourage production of top quality lamb while running a sheep business producers can be proud of. These new tools can help producers reduce paperwork, save time, and achieve greater efficiencies which ultimately benefits everyone. ALP's website, www.ablamb.ca, is a rich source of information, resource modules and workshops that provide sheep operation and management content. There is also more information on how technology is helping Alberta producers lead the way in innovation and industry progress.

Alberta Lamb Producers is a producer directed and funded organization that is a dynamic partner in building a sustainable, thriving industry for sheep producers. ALP provides every producer with a voice and ongoing representation to government and other industry members. ALP is responsible for a variety of programs all aimed at supporting producers and ensuring the continued growth and profitability of the industry.