The health and wellbeing of animals has been front and centre for University of Sydney research fellow Sabrina Lomax since her first engagement with animal bioscience more than a decade ago.
Dr Lomax joined the team at the university’s dairy research group at Camden in December last year.
Her doctoral thesis focused on practical pain management in animal husbandry procedures — primarily the use of the veterinary pain relief product Tri-solfen when mulesing and tail-docking sheep.
This was against the backdrop of all-out legal war between wool research and marketing entity Australian Wool Innovation and animal rights activists People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Mulesing is a surgical procedure performed on-farm on lambs usually between two and 12 weeks to remove wool-bearing skin from the tail and breech area in order to prevent future flystrike.
The furore around the practice goes back to 2004, when PETA threatened the Australian wool industry and international clothing retailers with an international boycott of Australian wool if farmers continued to mules their lambs.
Dr Lomax is working on a virtual herding program, which is a Commonwealth-funded rural research and development for profit project. The program is a collaboration between Sydney, New England and Melbourne universities, the CSIRO and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.
Virtual herding will change the way future producers manage their livestock using mobile phone-centred digital technologies while cutting back on traditional overheads such as internal farm fencing.
Dr Lomax said the program’s focus is on individual animals and animal sub-groups within beef and dairy cattle herds.
‘‘It’s about controlling the animals through training using cues and associated learning,’’ she said.
‘‘All the animals wear neck collars with devices designed to generate positive behavioural responses from the animals.
‘‘Dairy cattle are very food-motivated and we are using positive reinforcement for herding animals along with the association of an audio cue and mild electrical stimuli for containing animals within a specific area.
‘‘It’s associative learning and the major behaviour we are researching is the value-added management of individual and sub-group cattle using smart phone farming.’’
Dr Lomax is also working on a national Strategic Welfare Partnership program funded by the Federal Government with dollar-for-dollar matching money from Meat and Livestock Australia’s Donor Company being led by University of Sydney research fellow Cameron Clark.
Dr Lomax said research, development and adoption projects would look at such issues as the improvement or replacement of practices such as branding, dehorning and castration.
‘‘Methods to monitor animal welfare and to improve the early detection of disease, testing immunity and the reduction of mortality rates will also be explored,’’ she said.