Electronic ear tags are the key to the next generation of contented, happy sheep.
The prospect of e-sheep is driving a new era of farming, according to NSW Department of Primary Industry senior technical officer Bill Murray.
Murray is operating a prototype "e-sheep farm" in Western NSW which lets sheep roam while having all their needs and wants catered for electronically.
The e-sheep idea works via a transponder placed in an ear tag which interacts with fixed points on a farm, from gates to water, food and weighing machines. When a sheep heads towards gates to access food, the gate will immediately open. Solar panels are used to operate gates and other machines.
Murray said the prototype system can keep tabs on a single sheep from lambing to the time it becomes a lamb chop.
"However, the main advantage is in sheep handling, because the transponder allows the sheep to forage," Murray said.
"As a sheep goes about its [paddock], information such as bodyweight can be gathered and sheep can be moved between paddocks. Marketing decisions can be made without the need to muster animals and put them through undue stress.
"At present the system can weigh the animals, record numbers and direct [stock] by weight or other characteristics, such as sire groups, into different areas."
For example, if a grazier wants to select all the pregnant ewes, or all the wethers that are over a certain weight and ready for market, he has only to set the system to the desired parameters and the sheep do the rest, with the gates directing them into the correct yards or paddocks.
The tagging system, which includes ear-tags, solar panels, software and mechanisms to operate gates and weighing machines costs around $15,000. The electronic ear tags can be re-used and cost between $2 and $2.60 each.
Murray said the initial costs of "e-enabling" sheep are quickly recovered through lower day-to-day management costs.
"In arid areas in particular, sensors at watering points sends information into the system saving significant monitoring costs - as much as $4 per sheep per year - as well as the savings accrued by the e-sheep self-managing their own food and water requirements," he said.