A world-first study is trialling smart technology to monitor behaviour, physiological and epigenetic changes in Merino sheep production.
The Western Sydney University-led study will remotely monitor the effects of shearing on sheep behaviour using the smart tag technology developed by Australian Wool Innovation.
In particular, the monitoring will focus on shearing frequency and reproductive milestones and will include assessment of sheep movement, feedbase interactions and reproductive outcomes to produce a template of new biomarkers that will boost sheep reproduction programs.
Leading the research is Edward Narayan from the School of Science and Health, who said the study would mean a better understanding of the changes that occur in utero in Merino lambs under shearing frequency, with the results to have ‘‘significant commercial and scientific value’’.
‘‘Reproductive wastage of viable embryos and lambs is an important problem in the livestock industry and the results of this study could contribute to reducing it,’’ Dr Narayan said.
‘‘Through this new research, we will obtain real-time scientific information on the reproductive status, behaviour and physiology of maternal ewes and the data applied to better understand the nexus of maternal-foetal environmental interactions and overall productivity.’’
With the long-term aim of the research to provide a deeper understanding of the lifetime production traits in Merino sheep, it’s anticipated the study will help make remote health screening of mothers and lambs using new smart technology a reality.
‘‘The greater goal at hand is to move away from solely assessing DNA to a more holistic approach that includes the examination of environmental factors we know impact DNA at a molecular level, which is known as epigenetics,’’ Dr Narayan said.
‘‘The sophistication of non-invasive technologies such as smart tags, Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) and wool-based reproductive and stress hormone monitoring is at a point now where remote screening of sheep reproduction and welfare is a real possibility.’’
The study will also pave the way for producers to monitor environmental impacts on their own flocks using data from smart tags directly transmitted to mobile phones.