GrowSafe: Feed sheep smarterWritten by Liz LeSatz
The GrowSafe system is an electronic feed bunk that monitors specific feed intake information for individual animals. Each animal is equipped with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that is scanned each time the animal puts its head in the feed bunk. The system records the amount of feed consumed and the time of consumption. The data is compiled over time and provides specific feed intake information on each individual animal.
Similar systems have been used for cattle and have been adapted for sheep, including one at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) in Lingle. However, the Laramie system is the first of its kind set up specifically to monitor sheep.
Livestock Manager Brent Larson and assistant Kalli Koepke, a junior majoring in animal and veterinarian sciences, are on the ground floor of the GrowSafe operations. Larson and Koepke can access real-time information, as well as stored data, right from their office.
As part of the real-time functions of the program, the user can monitor what animals are eating at any time. This capability has helped the Livestock Research Center to observe sick animals before they show outward signs of illness. In one such case, Larson noticed a buck sitting back from the rest, but the animal didn’t look sick. To be safe, Larson checked the ram’s feed intake and saw it had dropped considerably. A check revealed a high temperature and slight trouble breathing.
“We treated him at about eight in the morning and by noon his temperature was down so I kicked him out with the rest,” Larson says. “He had gone from about eight or nine pounds of intake to only two pounds. The same day we put him back out he was over five pounds of intake again.”
GrowSafe has offered other advantages for the UW researchers in Laramie and at SAREC, according to Animal Science Professor Bret Hess who works extensively with the GrowSafe system at SAREC. Because the feed is weighed in the bunks, abnormal weights can indicate a pest problem. The system can also indicate a missing animal if feed intake stops.
Hess also said the system gives them an opportunity to look at aggressive feeding behavior or provide recommendations about the amount and timing of feed placed in the bunks.
The flock used in the GrowSafe program is the same set of rams used by the UW for the Rambouillet ram test held every year (see sidebar). The system hosts eight pens and the 70 rams in the ram test can access all eight bunks.
This year’s program is experimental and Bob Stobart, an Animal Science Department associate professor, says they’re still working through some of the system’s hiccups.
“We’re not at 100 percent accuracy yet, but we’re really close to getting the bugs worked out,” Stobart says.
While a price tag of more than $80,000 limits the system’s use on individual sheep operations, Stobart says GrowSafe is very beneficial to seedstock producers.
“The results of the GrowSafe system can be used by those who produce rams commercially,” he says. “Because efficiency is a heritable trait, the data can be used by producers for selecting desirable traits.”
The UW researchers hope to utilize the data in various ways. The results will help provide gain efficiency data on individual rams and might even provide a correlation between average daily gain and the time of day the animals feed.
In the future, GrowSafe may also monitor environmental temperatures to illustrate how temperature relates to intake. The program might also someday monitor lambs or ewes and may be used for nutritional studies.