Lamb Industry Embracing Technology

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It s been a long haul, but the Alberta sheep industry has found a system of traceability that has the potential to really work for the province s 1,800 lamb producers.

We re finished testing tags, we re finished testing tag readers, we re finished testing software and we ve got something in each of those areas that works, said Susan Hosford, a business development officer with Alberta Agriculture.

The Alberta Lamb Traceability Project is in its fourth year, and is now focusing on the business side of traceability, and specifically how to make it pay off for the producers.

We decided we have to be able to find a benefit for Alberta producers because the cost of production has gone up significantly, our market price for lambs is good, but the profit margins need to be better, said Hosford.

Using co-operating producers from Alberta and other parts of Canada, production costs were gathered from 2009 and 2010 and software has been developed to provide producers an instant flock snapshot. In an instant, producers can see where their losses are which then gives them the opportunity to try and mitigate the situation.

Very often they were in things like feed costs or labour or maybe their lambing percentage was too low or their lamb death loss was too high, said Hosford.

The project then focused on ewe productivity, and using individual animal traceability in conjunction with software and data management to find the ewes which were not working as hard as the producer. Because your feed costs, your labour, your investment costs are all wrapped up in your ewe flock and everybody could agree that they didn t have 100 per cent of their ewe flock that was incredibly productive. But now with RFID tags and these electronic management systems, they have the ability to identify the ewes that are standing at the feeder eating all year and not marketing a lamb, Hosford said.

Deadline delayed

Participation was going to become mandatory for lamb producers as of Jan. 1, 2012, but the deadline has been delayed. While the industry has gone to great lengths to try and offer producers the best bang for their buck, all that technology can be pretty intimidating to traditional producers.

We re still working out some of the bugs, it s a huge learning curve. They can t talk to their parents about what the best tag and tag reader is, because there s no experience and they can t ask what software to use, there s no experience. It s been a process of building hands-on experience at the farm level, said Hosford.

She says producers testing the software and technology say they would never want to go back to being without it. Their enthusiasm is just what the industry needed as it encouraged others to keep an open mind. Because of the pilot project here in Alberta and because we have 50 co-operators in it, the resistance in Alberta is much, much less. That being said there are people who are not comfortable with technology and so they look at it as something pretty scary.

Hosford said that using a computer is a challenge for some, so there will probably be a paper system in place for several years.

The Alberta government has launched an incentive program for producers. RFID tag costs are refundable for all 2011 and 2012 lambs and Hosford hopes that other programs will be rolled out in the future to ease the transition. When there is a pretty steep learning curve then it is a bit of a risk for a business and that s where the incentive programs really help to make that step, she said.

The cost of production research and development will continue throughout the coming year, and a number of training courses will be offered to producers to help roll out the technology.

For more information on the research thus far, producers can visit www.sheepcentral.ca.

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