Matchmaker system a time-saver

The West Australian
Poll Merino ewes and lambs on Thomas Pengilly’s Cascade farm.
Camera IconPoll Merino ewes and lambs on Thomas Pengilly’s Cascade farm. Credit: DPIRD

It was not a decision that came easily, but mixed wheat-sheep farmer Thomas Pengilly says investing in technology for their Merino enterprise was one of the best decisions the Cascade family has made.

The Pengillys have run their Penrose Poll Merino stud, 102km north-west of Esperance, for 40-odd years but eight years ago they decided to strengthen focus on genetic improvement.

The stud already used Australian Sheep Breeding Values and five years ago the family bought the Pedigree Matchmaker to more accurately determine the ewes’ pedigree.

The system works by setting up a panel reader that then reads the electronic identification tags on ewes and lambs as they walk past.

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Software is then able assess the frequency with which a particular lamb follows a particular ewe and therefore determine parentage.

“We primarily did this for the data and the data pays for itself,” Mr Pengilly said.

“The ability to know who mum is and select on that pedigree knowing whether she had a good lamb over the last five years — that’s powerful in itself.”

But it is the sheer saving on labour hours that might be the biggest benefit of the automated system.

Before using the Matchmaker, ewes and lambs were brought in to the yards in lots of 100 to 150, with the lambs tagged to the sire with electronic ID tags.

Dam pedigree was assessed by simply drafting off the lambs and watching which ewe called to which lamb.

Not only was it time consuming but there was always the risk of human error.

On top of the hours spent shifting sheep back and forth to the yards, the Pengillys estimated that it took five hours to accurately identify the mothers and lambs.

This process was repeated for each of the mobs of ewes and lambs, which were lambed down based on paternal lines. It is a tried and tested system but it chewed up two people’s time when the Pengillys could least afford it.

“We lamb down in April and ... by bringing the mobs in individually you’re looking at a couple days work just shifting sheep, tagging and writing stuff down,” Mr Pengilly said.

“It was tying a couple of people up right at seeding time, which more often than not you can’t really afford to do.”

By contrast, it takes one person about 30 minutes to set up and disassemble the Pedigree Matchmaker system.

And turning all the data into a list of matched ewes and lambs is as easy as the click of a button.

“I simply go up (to the Matchmaker panel) with my laptop and the data gets transferred via Bluetooth,” Mr Pengilly said.

“Because it matches up with our current management software, it’s a press of a button once I download the file and it tells us who mum is and who lamb is.”

That is not to say using the Pedigree Matchmaker has all been smooth sailing.

Mr Pengilly said it had taken a few seasons to perfect their system.

“The first couple of years and the lack of knowledge in the industry about it and how to set it up — they were hard,” he said.

“Our accuracies weren’t quite there and when we crunched the numbers on it that was the proof.”

Trial and error showed that getting the set-up right — and having a bit of knowledge of sheep psychology — was crucial to success.

The Pengillys set the Matchmaker up in a narrow gateway between a feedlot and a laneway.

With water in the feedlot and food in the laneway, ewes and lambs are required to walk through the gateway and past the panel reader several times a day.

It is the frequency with which the panel reader can read the electronic ID tags on the ewes and lambs that gives the system its accuracy in matching ewe with lamb.

“We found it really, really important to divide the two,” Mr Pengilly said. “They are chasing one or the other and we control both.”

This set-up means the Pengillys are currently getting about 6000 reads of the tags per day.

“We got 88 or 92 per cent accuracy last year and with the reads we’ve got now I expect the same kind of accuracy,” Mr Pengilly said.

But what the Pengillys were not entirely expecting was the sheer monetary value of the labour units saved by using an automated system.

Economist Peter Rowe crunched the numbers to determine the financial benefit of the Pedigree Matchmaker.

According to his figures, the initial purchase cost of $3345 for the Pedigree Matchmaker was recouped in just three years through labour savings.

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