Electronic tagging, digital scale system costly, but Keller argues benefits
DAMASCUS, Md. — At recent open house events at his Vista View Farms in Montgomery County, Andrew Keller showed fellow sheep producers how he used an electronic tagging and digital scale system to gather rate of gain data for a grant project.
The producers listened and observed intently about what the technology can do, but when Keller explains how much it costs, he said most of the visitors stopped considering it for their farm.
It’s a challenge small farm operators of almost any product face, justifying the cost of a hefty investment over so few animals or crop acres.
Keller said he struggled with the decision also but two research grants secured in 2017 and 2018 from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program gave him enough incentive to buy the system and with the projects wrapped up, he said he’s glad he made the choice.
“This is a tool that, yes, it costs you dollars to get it up and going, but it could save you dollars and it definitely saves you time,” he said.
The grant projects funded a portion of the equipment purchase and were designed to evaluate the use of rate-of-gain as a quicker way to identify lambs needing an anthelmintic administered for parasites over the FAMACHA test and, secondly, to evaluate the effectiveness of putting treated lambs in a dry-lot versus returning them to pasture with the rest of the flock.
To gather and record data for the project, Keller started using RFID tags on the farm’s ewes and purchased a tag reader, digital scale and the proper software to hold and organize the data.
All the equipment about $4,000 in 2017, he said.
Through using the SARE projects, Keller said he found using rate of gain to identify lambs that required anthelmintic treatment was “a good selection tool” consistent with results of the FAMACHA test about 70 percent of the time.
Regarding the dry lot-versus-pasture question, the study showed the survival rate of treated lambs increased by 40 percent when lambs that required treatment were moved into a dry lot rather than returned to pasture.
“For producers that would like to maintain at least a partial pasture-based operation, these results indicate that lambs that do not require treatment may still thrive on pasture,” Keller wrote in a report on the project. “The experience also demonstrated that it is best to take lambs requiring treatment off pasture for their wellbeing, and for the producers’ profitability and psychological wellness.”
Final reports for the grant projects, FNE17-875 and FNE18-900 are available on the SARE grant project website, projects.sare.org.
Vista View had about 70 ewes when the SARE projects began in 2017 and now is up to about 120, raising Dorsets and Blueface Leicesters.
Along with its accuracy and consistency in getting data for the grant projects, Keller said it hass been a big time saver in handling and sorting sheep and helps in making culling decisions.
It takes out what Keller called the “pretty factor” the may keep a nice looking but less producing lamb on that farm that should ultimately be sent to market.
Keller said through their management software, the data gave a clearer picture of lambing frequency and single births that he might not otherwise see.
“It doesn’t do everything though,” Keller admits and said the farmer’s observations and intuition still play a role. But combined with the data the system generates, it can make management more robust overall.
The Shearwell tag reader he bought also allows for comments to be added that accompany the data it records, he said.
He said he also sees several ways to use the system to more benefit. Automatic gates can be synched to the system to sort animals by weight, further reducing labor needs.
For their Blueface Leicester flock, data on micron counts can add value to higher quality fleeces.
“It can actually make a significant difference in the profitability for wool sales,” Keller said.
As more data is compiled, he said it will add value in marketing animals to other shepherds.
Keller said with each added use, it will help his farm stay viable.
“It’s just a way that we can move forward to possibly making it a stronger income source for the farm,” he said. “It’s not all about money but it’s about sustainability and if you can keep things moving forward.”
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