by Dan Persons
First let me introduce myself. I am Dan Persons owner and operator of the Rafter P Ranch at Kensington, Minnesota and Sales and Support Representative for Shearwell Data LTD based out of Wheddon Cross, England with a USA headquarters in Houston, Texas. Our ranch currently consists of about 400 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and pasture and 550 Polypay ewes. Our ewes are intensely managed to lamb once each year and all lambs are finished to market weight of 135-140 pounds. We sell a considerable number of replacement ewe lambs each year and are enrolled in NSIP. At our peak we were keeping 1000 ewes in a modified accelerated program. In the last 10 years I have personally helped over 200 farms and ranches transition their operations to RFID.
We have always been focused on recording data. We used paper barn sheets and then transferred those written sheets into a spreadsheet. When weighing lambs at weaning we tried various recording methods. Written, keyed into a paper-tape calculator, keyed into a spreadsheet and keyed directly into a dedicated sheep management software. The process of visually reading the ear tags was a perpetual challenge and manual data entry into a software package was time consuming and wrought with errors.
Our journey into RFID began early on in our sheep production when we had about 200 ewes with a desire to expand and improve our production levels. The first exposure to electronic data collection came on a tour of a large operation in western Nebraska in about 2004. They were using ear tags with barcodes on them. They were able to scan the barcode (after cleaning the tag off) and that tag number would be entered into their scale for a reliable read and the weight would be automatically recorded. At this time RFID tags were only starting to be developed and used in cattle.
We rapidly expanded our flock to around 1000 ewes and struggled to keep up with paper records and manual data entry into a useable software. We have used spreadsheets, homemade data bases and three different commercially available sheep management software packages. In 2012, after several long conversations with the owner of Shearwell, we settled on the Shearwell system with RFID tags made just for sheep/goats, a handheld tag reader/data logger, management software and complementary sheep weighing/sorting equipment. We looked at this purchase as an investment in our business and not as a cost. This switch to RFID has been a game changer for our operation.
With the RFID tags and readers, we reduced the time to record our data to a matter of seconds rather than minutes per record. At the same time, we virtually eliminated data entry errors. Prior to using RFID, we would find that ear tags were visually read wrong or recorded wrong and then later possibly transposed upon manual entry into the software. It was not uncommon to have the same ewe recorded as lambing several times in one month. Now, with RFID, we can record a ewe’s lambing record in less time than it took to just visually read the ear tags before. When it comes to weighing animals, we can now process upwards of 350 lambs per hour including giving shots and sorting to different pens. All with only two people (both in their 60’s).
Transitioning to RFID does not come free. It comes with a monetary cost, and it comes with a need to learn a new way of doing things. I will not lie. There is a learning curve that can seem straight up at some times. A good support team is mandatory. One of the most common questions I get is “how big does a flock need to be to justify using RFID?”. I used to think that number was in the 2-300 range. What I have learned over the last 10 years is that flock size is not the determining factor. The desire to improve a flock and the competition for a person’s time are far more important. In our flock we were able to increase our lambing percentage the first year by .1 lamb per year simply by culling out the ewes that gave only single lambs two years in a row. We have now increased our lambing percentage by a full half a lamb in the last 8 years through strategic culling, superior ram selection and picking ewe lambs out of our elite ewes. Those elite ewes had to raise twins and triplets successfully with adjusted 50-day weights of over 60 pounds. At the same time, we have increased our finished lamb size by about 15 pounds without seeing any increase in our yield grades.
To put some numbers to the increases. A .1 increase in lambing percentage over 100 ewes can add over $2000 to gross income. A .05 pound per day increase in average daily gain of lambs can translate to a $800 savings in feed to reach the same end point on 150 lambs. An increase of 15 pounds of finished lamb in todays (rather poor market) is $16.50 per lamb which adds up to $2475 on 150 lambs. These do not include any savings of labor.
Some of the other ways we are seeing benefits of our increased records are harder to quantify. We use our death loss records to annually review the causes and ages of lambs that died during the year. This includes still born, died before tagging, abortions, illnesses and accidents. We look for strategies that may reduce non-viable lambs including vaccinations, feeding practices and antibiotic uses to reduce these early losses. A few years ago, we saw an increasing trend in pneumonia cases both in our treatment records and in our death losses. We have now been experimenting with pneumonia vaccines and have adjusted our ventilation in the barns. Death losses in bottle raised lambs continues to be a concern that we are working on. With our prolific flock we raise about 10 percent of our lambs artificially and would like to keep their mortality and morbidity lower. Keeping these records on pen and paper was simply not practical and did not lend itself to analysis.
With the coming changes in the use of antibiotics on our farms, and the need to track the use of those drugs, the software and readers can help meet the regulations. We sell our lambs under a never-ever program so tracking drug uses has always been important on our farm. The need to maintain records of drug use on all farms is coming soon. The software we use will track withdrawal dates for any treatments and prevents us from sending animals to market too soon.
The decision to invest in RFID is different for every farm. For some they will change to increase productivity, some to save time, some to fit a branded program, some to save labor, some because they like technology and some to solve flock health problems. RFID is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some systems will fit an operations goal better than others. I invite you to do your homework and choose a system that will fit your needs and that has superior support.
Dan Persons owns and operates Rafter P Ranch near Kensington, MN where they raise 550 Polypay ewes. He is also the Sales and Support Representative for Shearwell North America (www.shearwell.com) where he has helped over 200 farms transition to RFID over the past 10 years.