On-Farm Innovation Series: The Shepherd

Over the 2018/19 summer period, Farm Table is presenting a series to celebrate the innovative ingenuity of farm inventions, big and small, and the farmers behind them.

Innovative solutions to problems are being developed and designed by Australian producers, and we are excited and proud to share these stories with you all.

We were excited by the opportunity to speak to Justin Dunn of Thunder Valley, founder of The Shepherd, an auto lick sheep feeder system. Justin wears many hats and it was inspiring to have the chance to get an insight into his life, his feedlot and his innovative solution that may interest many of our readers.

Justin, tell us about you and where you are based?

My name is Justin Dunn and I’m based in Temora in the Riverina of NSW. As well as feedlotting lambs on our property, I am also the local High School Principal and the founder of Thunder Valley Precision Feeders and The Shepherd. So, you could say I have a few irons in the fire!

I live in Temora with my partner and children on a 20 acre property, with the farm and feedlot at another location 7kms away from the family home. I used to be active on the rodeo circuit, but my main work focus areas now are our feedlot and feeder business and my key role as a principal.

We set up the feedlot five years ago and I continue to improve and alter things as I learn many lessons around access, water, flow of sheep and filling feeders.

One of our goals from a family perspective is to finish up at the school at the same time as my youngest son does, who attends the school and has an intellectual disability. The five year plan (now four year!) is to work full time in our farm business.

The Land (Daniel Pedersen)

What is the nature of your on-farm innovation?

I developed The Shepherd, which is a smart feeder incorporating automated and solar technology to provide producers with a much greater control and precision when inducting or production feeding lambs.

The Shepherd automatic sheep feeder has a number of different versions (up to 20 metres long), but they all operate in the same way. There is a narrow feeding trough and a centreless auger running down it and a specially sized trough so the grain fills each hole and then cascades to the next hole quite rapidly. Adjustable brackets can provide greater feed volume if you would like to induction feed or production feed.

The user face is very friendly and you can program the time and quantity of feed used each day. You simply have to keep feed up to the storage bin and set the desired schedule and can then remote monitor the feeds from your smartphone. The system does not require mains power and is powered by a 24v self managed solar system with twin batteries. The auger is driven by a worm gear 320w motor operating at 250rpm and the flexible centreless auger is ideal for delivering grain to the trough at high speed.

The S-Series feeder comes with a standard 1.7m3 coated with 2 pack paint for durability in our conditions. The bins are engineered to the highest of standards and the feeding trough is 100% galvanised with replaceable inserts. The trough also has a full length roof for weather protection. The design also eliminates the effect of ‘raking’ with the tongue or hooves and has no bridging issues associated with moist conditions.

The units can pull out of field bins, seed silos, feed bins and up to 50T mother bins. We also have adapted to link into lick feeders. This means producers can induct using The Shepherd and then open up the lick feeder to operate as normal, getting the best of both worlds.

The system also works well in the paddock for supplementary feeding via a controlled ration, eliminating the need for trail feeding and reducing rates of mismothering. In all it’s uses, it reduces time and labour and saves grain losses through precision feeding and less wastage.

I use the 2T unit and it holds 1-2T of grain at one time.  Individual management decisions have to be made based on breed, frame size and wool in regards to number of sheep and trough spacing. The calculations we work on is that the feeders cost $30/head trough space, working on 200mm/unit, but we have had better success as low as 150 head of sheep on an 18m tray (36m of trough space).

A local engineer builds the bins and we assemble the kit to be sent out, which can be constructed in 2 hours.


Why did you develop The Shepherd? What was the problem you were hoping to solve?

The Shepherd was developed based on four key problems I wanted to overcome.

Firstly, inducting lambs can be a dangerous process. There seems to be a fixed mindset about how induction is simply about developing a sheep’s rumen at the expense of focusing on shy feeders in the first five days. If lambs do not have access to the grain from the start, when we do increase the ration, there is a huge increase in the risk of acidosis.

It is therefore crucial in the first few days that all lambs get access to the grain. Our system has 4G camera in places in the induction feeders. If I am concerned about shy feeders, we put a coloured spray down the centre of the tube. When I go to the feedlot in the evening and I find that 80% of lambs with a coloured nose and 20% without I know I have not had a very successful induction. I identify and draft them off if needed before the ration increases.

Secondly, as I have another job and career, I know exactly what my time is worth and know the best use of my time is not feeding sheep. Really, I think we all need to be asking the question, is anyone’s time worth feeding sheep day in, day out?

Thirdly, in times where the price of grain is high and limited feed on offer, I had to have a precise ration and knowledge of how long grain would last to budget accordingly. The system allows me to calculate exactly how long each 10T of grain will last and I know exactly when it will cut off.

Knowing the amount of grain per head per day that is going out I can forecast grain reserves better and know my profitability margin.

Finally,  I wanted a better solution to trail feeding our ewes a maintenance ration and a better method for inducting the lamb sat foot. It difficult to trail feed at exactly the same time each day. This lack of consistency means a ewe sometimes breaks away and can leave lambs behind.

Placing The Shepherd has resulted in ewes gravitating towards the feeders at the set time for their early morning feed at 6am and evening feed at 7pm. This, coupled with taking away the social stress of a ute coming in to feed, has reduced mimosthering.

They don’t continually come in and out and in and out, nor do they camp at the feeders, all helping to reduce mismothering.

The Shepherd (Thunder Valley)
The Shepherd (Thunder Valley)

What have been the major successes?

Solving each of those above problems has been so rewarding. Specifically, getting time back is the biggest thing and is what all farmers are wanting as there is not a huge pool of available labour. Knowing the value of my time and sitting down and working out the economics of feeding our sheep is something I’m passionate about and now can do in a much improved manner.

Predicting grain reserves is so important, particularly in the year we have had. I firmly believe we have saved at least a tonne of grain per fortnight on 400 ewes.

There seems to be many flash production feeding systems on the market, but no one is tackling the induction program in the way we are, and most are still inducting by hand. I believe anyone can production feed well if they have the fundamentals right, but getting lambs started can be difficult and labour intensive. Many are turning to pellets and slowly inducting, but buffers can be sour and there can be high numbers of shy feeders. Having an alternative to this to reduce mortality and shy feeders is a major success.

Receiving the AgInnovators Award at Henty Field Days and the NAB Award of Excellence at the Australian National Field Days in Orange in 2018 were both major highlights. In addition, I was successful in receiving a Minimum Viable Product grant through the Australia Government, which has enabled me to test and experiment with different components to improve The Shepherd.

Everyone using them are loving the system and buying additional units, which is one of the highest forms of recommendation.

Automated sheep feeder wins Henty Agri Innovators Award (Daniel Pedersen, The Land)

What have been the major challenges?

Scaling up has been a challenge. There has been rapid uptake of the system so matching production to demand has been difficult at times.

Also, we like to assist with installing them as finding the right people with the right knowledge to talk producers through the equipment and process can be difficult. However, the vision this year is to create a version that is flatpacked and can by DIY installed. We believe if the producer can put it together themselves, they will be more equipped to problem solve if needed as their knowledge of the system and it’s functionality is far improved.

Do you have any advice for others looking to solve a problem they face on farm?

  • Quality of product and service/support is key

Selling the product is only the first step. The producer must be able to contact you and problem solve, so we are not prepared to put out more units on the market that we cannot deal with.

  • Producers are willing to back a good idea

Many producers are willing to trial your product and cover the cost of production if it is a solid concept that will make their lives easier and solve their problems on farm. Talk to as many end users as possible and partner with those who are happy to share in the risk while benefiting from using the product working and improving.

Don’t be scared to trial your product with end users. You can still be building a plane while flying.

  • Website control

We wanted a very connected website with a marketplace merchant centre that was easy to maintain and connected through to Facebook. We have control over it and can scale the software up and down annually as much as we want to.

The Shepherd (Thunder Valley)

Where can people find you? 

Thanks so much, Justin. We can’t wait to see The Shepherd grow and hear about all those lives it is helping to improve. We can see the system saving valuable time and money whether used for maintenance rations, inducting, or in production feeding systems. Congratulations on the first two years and all the best for the future.

Catch up on other case studies in the series below.

On-Farm Innovation Series: Seagreen Hub Farms