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‘Pocket shepherd’ online tool delivers predictive sheep management

by Terry Sim, 07 August 2018

AUSTRALIA’S unique ‘vibrating shepherd in a pocket’, ASKBILL, is continuing to break new ground in predictive sheep management applications.

The revolutionary online tool was commercially launched at Lambex 2018 yesterday by the chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) James Rowe.

ASKBILL, www.askbill.com.au, is an online tool that provides timely and accurate predictions for sheep wellbeing and productivity using climate, stock and pasture information, and is now available online for sheep producers throughout Australia at an annual subscription of $110/year (incl. GST).

It complements grazing knowledge with detailed analysis of livestock and pasture conditions to predict opportunities and threats to individual businesses from weather, pests or disease — the critical information needed for making more precise farming decisions, protecting flock wellbeing and maximising productivity.

Professor Rowe said one of the next great opportunities for ASKBILL was to start underpinning programs like Lifetime Ewe Management or LTEM, “because it gives you that predictive forecasting element that goes along with the regular monitoring.”

“And that’s the best that ASKBILL works actually and that’s to combine measurement, observation and fine-tuning with the forecasting.”

Professor Rowe said ASKBILL would complement the existing LTEM app.

“The most difficult of management in a grazing system is your long-term feed budgeting and so what you really need to be doing is forecasting as well as measuring.

“I understand the LTEM app measures what you’ve got and predicting how far that will take you, whereas if you add a new dimension to that which is forecasting how much more pasture will be produced over the next one, two or three months – that becomes really useful.”

The vibrating shepherd in your pocket

Professor Rowe said WA sheep breeder Brad Wooldridge and Sheep CRC sheep wellbeing and productivity program leader Dr Lewis Kahn masterminded many of ASKBILL’s intricacies.

Mr Wooldridge runs 2200 ewes across two properties in the southern WA located 220km apart, with the second property carrying a high-risk of Barbers Pole worm.

He said being able to roadtest ASKBILL was timely, as it coincided with the purchase of a south coast property in a summer rainfall area with kikuyu pastures and an inherent Barber’s Pole worm risk.

“We really needed to stay in that prepared and organised zone and try to keep out of that panic and not (be) reactive – because Barber’s Pole really hits you.”

He said he was really excited to work with ag consultant Mike Hyder to test the ASKBILL app.

“We’ll have the Mike and the Bill and the CRC team working alongside and in competition with the Woolridge ‘wing its’.”

“That worked pretty well for a while, until I noticed Mike was there regularly measuring pasture and egg counts, he was scanning ewes, weighing ewes, he was doing blood tests, he was doing genomics, he was doing the whole lot.

“And he kept asking questions like ‘what weight are your lambs going to be when you sell them’, ‘what condition score are your ewes going to be?” he said.

“When you’ve got a Hyder in your paddock, your management gets a lot sharper and you real focus a lot – and I think that was a big lesson for us.”

Mr Wooldridge outlined how ASKBILL helped him look at various worm management scenarios and organising low-risk pastures for sheep.

“It’s difficult to get a Hyder in the paddock all the time and we can’t all do it though it would be a really good thing.

“But I think the next best thing is to have a vibrating shepherd in your pocket.”

Mr Wooldridge said despite having to travel 1500km to his south coast property to feed sheep each week, the land purchase had been backed by the alerts from ASKBILL and it’s pleasing to achieve good results in a challenging season.

“The sophistication of the modelling is what sets ASKBILL apart from other tools and its predictions mean you can plan ahead – if you’re not planning, you’re reacting and from a management perspective that’s a whole lot harder.”

Professor Rowe said extensive testing in real-world conditions of ASKBILL’s predictive capability had resulted in a tool that was ready to put Australian sheep producers on the front foot in preparing for the inherent variability of climatic conditions and their impact on sheep production.

“ASKBILL is unlike any other technology currently available in that it links individual farm records with predictive modelling and big data analytics to spot risks and alert producers to opportunities to improve sheep production and wellbeing, up to six months ahead of events to help plan joining, lambing, weaning and sale decisions.

“Predicting the state of pastures and livestock six months into the future is difficult even for experienced producers, but the Sheep CRC has now made this not only possible, but delivered a practical tool to help producers to develop and act on these insights,” he said.

Combining ASKBILL with other tools

Professor Rowe said producers could also combine ASKBILL with the Sheep CRC’s RamSelect system and DNA test range, meaning they would only need to enter data once in one application to access benefits from all platforms.

Additional benefits to producers from using ASKBILL include:

‘What If’ tools to calculate how much of which supplement they need to feed sheep to maintain live weight and condition, or to finish growing sheep;

Alerts to changes in ewe condition score, which is critical to the performance of a sheep breeding business as it affects the lifetime performance of her progeny;

Predicting wool cut for a flock at any time between shearings;

Assistance in meeting weight and fat specifications—vital for successfully supplying a target market for best financial returns;

Allowing users to validate the standard of care their animals received.



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