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Local Sheep Ranchers Unveil Open-Source, DIY Tracking System

With severe drought continuing to affect agriculture on the Western Slope, KVNF’s Travis Bubenik explores how two tech-savy local sheep farmers found a way to cut costs and manage their animals more efficiently. 

Oogie McGuire introduces me to one of her guard dogs at Desert Weyr Farms, just outside of Paonia on Garvin Mesa. She and her husband Ken run Black Welsch Mountain Sheep, a unique breed, a threatened breed in fact, one that’s also part of a USDA research project looking at the animals' reproductive systems. Since they’re being studied, these sheep have to be closely tracked, and the McGuires need all the data on the animals they can get.

Sheep are usually tracked by hand, counting each ear tag one at a time. And if you misread a tag? Sometimes you have to just start over. It costs time and labor, both of which the McGuire’s two-person operation can’t afford to spare. So with a little silicon-valley style creativity, they figured out their own way to electronically track their flock, without having to buy thousands of dollars worth of equipment. 

At this year’s 86th annual conference of the Colorado Wool Grower’s Association in Montrose, Oogie unveiled the Open-Source Electronic ID system her and Ken have been working on for months. The LambTracker software, as they call it, works with any smart phone or handheld device that has Bluetooth and an Android operating system. To use the software and actually do the tracking, Ken  built a digital EID reader for under a hundred bucks, out of PVC pipe, some parts from Australia, and a ten dollar Bluetooth device.

LambTracker is completely free, and open for anyone to use and modifiable.

"The biggest question that people ask is well, how are you going to make any money?" Ken says. "Well, do you have to make money? 

At the local brewery, the McGuire’s de-facto LambTracker office, Ken explains why they’re keeping this program free and public. 

"I'm an open-source fanatic, developer, and have been for a very long time," he explains. "With closed-source software, you're at the mercy of the people that build it."

He admits this project is self-serving. After all, they wouldn’t have built it if they didn’t need it, and it’s not necessarily something every rancher needs.   

"Probably nobody outside of the sheep industry, and maybe some of the elk breeders, are interested in what we're doing," Ken says. "But the sheep industry has done a lot for us, and we feel that that's a good thing to help us give back to the sheep industry."

Oogie and rancher John Bartmann chat about sheep tagging at the convention.  Bartmann hangs around the McGuire’s demo table for a while, asking questions, talking about his experience with some of the EID equipment that's already on the market.

"What they have opened up or exposed now is that, you know, a lot of these large companies, they got these trade secrets," Bartmann says. "And they want to patent it and sell it, which is understandable."

Bartmann runs 2,000 sheep in Wyoming and Northern Colorado, and while he appreciates the McGuire’s DIY spirit, he says it’s still too early for low-cost EID systems like LambTracker to really catch on.

"We don't have the equipment, like sorting shoots and readers that read it fast enough, to make it applicable on a commercial basis," he says. "Some of my ewes got EID tags in them, but if you're going to load a semi truck, you've got to get 300 head of sheep on a truck in less than 30 minutes. The technology isn't there to read that 300 ewes in less than 30 minutes, and do it accurately."

"I think what she's doing is great," says rancher Steve Raftopolis, who also runs a large commercial flock, "it's going to provide good information. But when you start running thousands of sheep, it's just cost prohibitive to do it. I mean I think the data would be great."

Raftopolis says it's still just too expensive to track every sheep with an electronic tag. EID readers on the market right now run anywhere from $400 to $1200 a piece. They're sturdy for sure, often shaped like a baseball bat, but add to the readers a $65 battery pack, $3-a-piece ear tags, and the costs start to outweigh the benefits.

Ken admits you'd have to be a hobbyist to build a homemade ID reader like his own, but anyone with an Android smartphone, even a half-plastic kids tablet computer, can download and use the LambTracker software to manage data on their animals. It's at least a start to cutting costs and working around industry standards, and while it may not work for large flocks, Connie Theos says it could help ranchers raising breeding rams.

"I think if you're going to be raising rams for sale to other people, there's a lot of information you need to retain," she says.

Terri Lamers, with Snyder Ranches in Norwood, says that's about right. 

"I think that that technology could be very useful," she says. "We sell breeding rams and we tag them, and those numbers are impossible to read."

The McGuires also hope to make the whole process cheaper by getting ear tags imported from overseas and approved by the USDA. Electronic tagging is largely mandatory in the UK, so the tags are much cheaper. But Ken insists he's opposed to that kind of regulation in the US.

"We think that the freedom to do what we want, and what we need to do, outweighs what the USDA thinks we should do," he says.

For Ken and Oogie, the LambTracker project is more about empowering individual ranchers than trying to steer the course of the industry. It’s an experiment, but as Oogie explains, there could be a dream involved. At the end of her presentation she shows a slide of "Mr. One" the first of their flock to be tracked with an EID from birth.

"He's our electric sheep, so androids might dream of electric sheep."