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AWI Funding New Tech to Elevate Wool Production and Quality

A new technology is being developed as part of an Australia Wool Innovation (AWI)-funded project to benefit those in the wool-growing industry.

According to AWI, the new tech could enable wool-growers to easily and cost effectively analyze the wool follicle density of sheep at a much younger age, enabling more rapid genetic improvement in production and quality.

The wool-producing “factory” of the sheep are the millions of follicles located just below the surface of the animal’s skin. A merino sheep typically has about 60 follicles in each square millimeter, AWI noted.

Sheep with higher densities of wool follicles not only produce a heavier clean fleece weight, but they also produce lower diameter fibers. This allows wool growers who select sheep with a greater density of wool follicles to improve the quantity and quality of the wool in their flock.

Currently, while wool follicle density can be measured using “histology,” few wool growers find this process to be either economically or logistically viable, AWI said. Histology involves taking a small biopsy sample of the animal’s skin, chemically processing it and analyzing it under a microscope. This process costs more than $100 per animal and can take several weeks.

Now, a technology solution is being investigated in an AWI-funded project in collaboration with the University of Adelaide and Miniprobes. The project brings together researchers in optical imaging, machine learning and livestock breeding and management.

Professor Wayne Pitchford of the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide said there is no product available on the market that can assess the potential wool production of a lamb prior to its first shearing.

“If woolgrowers were able to more readily and cost effectively identify high value sheep at an early stage, they could significantly increase the rate of genetic improvement and profit in the flock,” Pitchford said.

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The researchers have developed a high-resolution optical imaging technology, known as optical coherence tomography (OCT), that can be used to rapidly quantify the density of the follicles and the diameter of the wool fiber that will be produced. OCT is a medical imaging technology that is commonly used in the ophthalmology and cardiology departments of many hospitals.

A new technology is being developed as part of an AWI-funded project that could enable genetic improvement in production and quality.

Dr. Robert Mclaughlin of Miniprobes Pty Ltd said that while there are multiple manufacturers from whom off-the-shelf scanners can be sourced, the innovation in this AWI-funded project is in customizing the scanners for use on-farm, and in the development of intelligent machine learning software to automatically measure the density and size of the wool follicles.

“Our technology does not use any chemicals and does not require that tissue be removed from the sheep,” McLaughlin said. “It only requires that a small area of the sheep have wool temporarily removed so that we can image the skin. “With automated analysis software to measure the wool follicles, the entire process could be completed within a few minutes.”

At the end of the project, the researchers will provide a detailed product development and commercialization plan for the device, AWI noted.