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Breeding A Better Flock

It’s All In Your Records

By Tim King

Good recordkeeping is the tool that lays the foundation for any improved and highly profitable flock, regardless what breed or crossbreed. Select Sheepware, developed by George Megarry of TGM Software, is now providing a useful and flexible recordkeeping system that aids shepherds in meeting goals of increased profitability and improved genetics.

“Worldwide, improvers of many sheep breeds who use Select Sheepware largely started out by keeping information first in notebooks and index cards and with the computer age, on spreadsheets. But using these methods, they weren’t able to fully analyze the complicated and often seemingly conflicting flock data. I too, found no software that really drove livestock improvement,” Megarry says.

Megarry has an unusual set of skills in that he is both a former livestock farmer and a software development specialist.

“I gained a National Certificate in Agriculture at Agricultural College and following this farmed full time, growing arable crops and keeping beef cattle,” said Megarry, who farmed (and still operates his software work) in Hillsborough, County Down, Northern Ireland.

George Megarry of TGM Software uses a hand-held reader that increases data entry speeds and accuracy for flock improvement.

Megarry was always interested in software development and the use of technology on farms. He studied Information Technology (IT) in college, earning a Bachelor of Sciences with Honors in Computing; this, while continuing to farm.

Having graduated—and with a background in farming—Megarry knew from first hand experience what he wanted to do: Alleviate the struggle faced by every stockman committed to breeding and selection of livestock for improvement. He knew from long hours that using old-fashioned paper-and-pencil methods resulted in complex, sometimes conflicted data, and always time-consuming tasks like cataloguing and organizing each animal’s traits and performance records. He saw that these onerous jobs push most breeders to just chuck it all, relying instead on a lot of guesswork and instinct, hoping (instead of knowing) the next generation will improve, not worsen. All that’s really required for the fastest progress, he reasoned, is to sift the facts in order to choose the best breeding options.

“This led me to start an IT and software development company specializing in the agricultural industry.”

Since Megarry was raising beef when he had the idea for TGM Software Solutions, it was only natural that the first product out the chute was for cattle.

That was in 1993.

“The rapid adoption of the technology by dairy and beef farmers—along with a number of requests—led me to start designing software specifically for sheep farmers,” Megarry said. “Working closely with a number of sheep farmers I set about designing a practical, efficient and effective software management program for sheep farmers. My previous experience developing agricultural software for bovine famers was very helpful.”

TGM Software Solutions introduced Select Sheepware in 1998.

Megarry says the program was tested rigorously by a number of farmers throughout the world.

“With their input it has been refined and advanced over the years,” he said. “It’s now developed for use by commercial, pedigree, dairy and wool farmers.”

Digital Records Improve Flocks

Megarry refers to Select Sheepware generally as flock management software.

“The aim for any farmer in using flock management software is to amass flock information and have the power of analysis to make better management decisions,” Megarry said. “This involves collecting and recording data about each individual animal. These data can then be integrated with the program’s “reporting” functions—contained within the software—to look at the flock’s performance and compare one animal with another.

“For example, ewes can be ranked according to the weight of lamb they produce. This type of information is very helpful when deciding which animals to keep as replacements and which should be culled. Good software also gives the farmer a full history of each individual animal.”

Select Sheepware includes many other traits that can be recorded, such as the average daily weight gain (ADG), weight of the wool produced, the value of the wool produced, the wool history of an animal over a period of time, and the micron fiber diameter. With dairy sheep, milk yields can be recorded and analyzed over time.

“All of these trait comparisons can be done for individual animals, and also for sires and dams,” added Megarry’s assistant Jane Campbell.

Flock Data Crunching—Fast!

Campbell further pointed out that sheep breeders and flock managers can use the Select Sheep program to analyze a strain or bloodline arising within the flock that displays an inherited trait advantageous to the flock.

“The filters in the program allow sires or dams to be traced,” she said. “For example, we had one customer who was able to tell that one of her rams got lambs up to finished weight on average eight days earlier and that his lambs made an average of $16 a head more than the other rams in her flock.”

For most flocks, these additional returns are all profit: Their hardiness, higher lambing percentages, faster growth rates and carcass superiority are due to heredity, so they don’t cost more to keep than so-so sheep.

Megarry made clear that Select Sheepware doesn’t perform the same functions as such national and international programs as the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP), or Australia’s LambPlan.

“What Select Sheepware does is to allow users to collect breeding data on their own holdings for their own flocks, Megarry said. “If they want to send these data off to genetic breeding evaluation companies, then that will increase the overall pool of data coming in and increase the accuracy of breeding evaluations.

“On an individual farm, a flock management program alone can’t possibly compute breeding characteristics beyond very simple predictions. For example, if a ewe is one of a triplet, has produced triplets two years in a row and her mother is one of a triplet, it is likely that female offspring may pass on that trait, leading to higher lambs per ewe put to ram.

“This is not a complex mathematical function. It’s common sense. Even so, it cannot, in a large flock, be determined easily without computer software.”

“In Select Sheepware each animal has an individual virtual record card. That record card pulls together the animal’s (and flock’s) data from many sources, using SQL language syntax. At a few clicks of the computer’s mouse the average number of lambs born alive over the lifetime of the ewe for example, is immediately available in a report,” Megarry said.

Flockmaster-Driven Upgrades

Select Sheepware’s features are evolving with the needs of its customers. Users of the farm software may make suggestions for improvement and if Megarry finds the suggestions would be generally useful, the program will be updated to include them. The changes will then be uploaded to the company’s website and be made available to all customers.

“For example, many farmers spray numbers onto their ewes/lambs at lambing time,” Jane Campbell said. “We added the facility to record this number. We also added a feature to auto-save particular tasks. Suppose a farmer is administering medication and all animals are receiving the same dosage of a medication. The auto-save feature, if activated, will save this so all the farmer needs to do is ‘beep the sheep’ rather than record the dosage and treatment for each animal. This significantly cuts down time involved in recording.”

Customers also have the option of customizing their program.

“Product innovation to us is critical,” Megarry said. “For those farmers who require something very specific we can modify the program to meet their individual needs. For example, we have just finished a project for a specialist wool producer who needed to print out bar codes for each fleece as the sheep were clipped.”

Select Sheepware’s customers outside of Ireland communicate with Megarry regularly using Skype, e-mail, and telephone. The actual computer hardware required to run Select Sheepware includes any Windows PC and an internet connection adequate to download the software initially and to run updates. The costs are US $200 for a small flock of 100 ewes or less and US $400 for an unlimited flock size. Users can also pay monthly—$11.50 for a small flock and $23 for unlimited flock size. The company offers a one month free trial and a free flock register. A hand held reader, which can be used to enter data in the field while working with your sheep, is also available.

“Over the years, we have learned not to try to tell farmers what data they need to record,” Megarry said, “but rather to respond to their requests, such as what data they want or need to record. Our software is user driven, not consultant driven.”

For more information on sheep software for your computer—including a free trial of the TGM program, visit the web site.

Read related story — How Sheep Recording Software Adds Profit by George Megarry

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