There are a couple of big jobs that a shepherd or shepherdess has to take care of each year: castrating and tail docking.
The latter is the practice of removing a portion of the sheep’s tail to prevent a nasty disease called flystrike that costs Australian producers alone A$280 million ($205 million) annually.
If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip this next paragraph.
Flystrike happens when flies lay eggs in the flesh of another animal, which eventually hatch into maggots and eat the host’s flesh. The tail region of a wool sheep can become particularly messy as dung and urine accumulate in the thick fleece. This attracts swarms of flies and increases the odds that flystrike will occur. In the UK, 75% of sheep farms report cases of flystrike each year. The flies lay eggs in the soiled fleece and when they hatch, the maggots burrow straight down into the sheep’s skin. (Bet you wish you’d skipped over this part. I tried to warn you.)
It’s a serious condition, too, with sheep dying as quickly as three to six days after the onset of a case of flystrike.
Removing part of the tail helps to cut down on the amount of excreta that accumulates, making for a tidier backside. But despite its apparently good-natured objective, tail docking has been the subject of criticism from some welfare groups that view it as cruel due to the pain involved.
Likewise with castration, which is performed to control breeding in the flock and reduce aggressive behavior from rams.
A Brisbane-based startup called Senesino is hoping to modernize these practices while boosting efficiency on the farm with a new tool cleverly named Numnuts. It encompasses one of the existing methods that producers use to either castrate or tail dock: applying a rubber ring around the tail or testicles to constrict blood flow, which is sometimes called banding.
“Numnuts [is] an easy to use ring applicator, combined with an injector that dispenses NumOcaine local anesthetic simultaneously with the application of the standard rubber ring,” Ewan Macpherson, director of Senesino, told AFN.
The tool was developed over a nine-year period in Scotland with the support of the Moredun Foundation and with significant interest from the sheep industry in Australia, he added. But getting the device through regulatory approvals required Senesino to jump through more than a few hoops – and across a few continents.
Despite an arduous road to commercialization, Senesino recently won the Tesco Agri T-Jam & World Agri-Tech Pitch Day 2020. This gives the startup a chance to work alongside UK retail giant Tesco to improve and scale Numnuts.
Read more from Macpherson below.
AFN: What stage are you at in your growth?
Ewan Macpherson: Numnuts was launched to glowing reviews at the Australian Veterinary Association annual conference in Perth in May 2019. By October 2020, over 1 million Australian lambs have received relief from the pain experienced by marking. That’s around 2% of all lambs born in Australia during this year, which meets our sales targets. We expect to raise this to 5% of the Australian lamb flock during 2021.
Numnuts will be introduced into New Zealand in 2021 where, whilst there are marked differences in farming practice and veterinary coverage, the density of sheep farming is broadly similar to Australia and we are expecting a similar growth pattern.
Due to differences in the local anesthetic approved for use in sheep between Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, a separate approach needs to be followed for the introduction of Numnuts to the UK market. This will require further animal trials.
Tesco’s support to introduce Numnuts to a selected number of Tesco Supplier Network sheep farms during spring lambing 2021 will permit such trials to be completed and the appropriate regulatory approval obtained to permit a full-scale launch into the UK market in Spring 2022.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced, and how have you overcome them?
The need for Numnuts was first outlined by trials carried out at the University of Edinburgh nearly 30 years ago. This was endorsed in recommendations from the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council [now the Farm Animal Welfare Committee] published in 2008. We took up the challenge through our product design engineering sister company, 4c Design in Glasgow, Scotland, in late 2010. Despite the positive conclusions of a technical feasibility study we could not identify development funding interest from any sources within the UK or through EU membership channels.
However, through another agritech project with which we were involved at that time — Barbervax — we were introduced to Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation who jointly expressed an interest in pursuing a solution towards pain reduction during working of lambs. A progressive series of challenging technical development stages followed. Work, and lambing seasons, were shared between scientists and veterinarians at Moredun Research Institute in Scotland and CSIRO [the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization] in Australia.
As the development phases progressed, we embarked on an intensive program to try to identify potential commercialization. Over time and many meetings it became increasingly clear that the pharmaceutical industry perceived Numnuts to be a device for dispensing a low-value commodity drug, while device companies saw it as a pharmaceutical product with the attendant regulatory issues. No serious interest which would have secured the future for Numnuts emerged from this long process of inquiry.
By 2017 we concluded that we should pursue the commercialization of Numnuts ourselves and set up a new vehicle, Senesino, in Scotland in May 2017. This permitted us to raise further seed funding from a small number of private investors and establish a subsidiary in Australia in June 2019.
What was the commercialization process like from there?
As we developed the Senesino commercialization model during 2018 and 2019, we engaged with the agricultural and veterinary pharmaceutical distribution sectors in Australia. It became increasingly clear that these sectors, together with the retail veterinary sector, commanded a disproportionate share of the margin available to maintain the producer price within limits acceptable to the economic production of lambs for meat and wool.
In addition, we observed that although rural farms in Australia carried out retail shopping online, the agricultural supplies sector had hardly embraced this approach, which was growing rapidly elsewhere. We concluded that establishing our own online business supplying farmers directly both protected our margin and maintained the cost of Numnuts to farmers at acceptable and affordable levels. The rapid and widespread increase in the use of online business activity during Covid-19 has borne out this approach.
How has your fundraising experience been so far?
Investment support has been equally challenging to secure. A lot of conventional angel funding appears to be structured along similar strict sectoral lines. Numnuts, which straddles the space between pharmaceuticals and veterinary medical devices, does not fit neatly into defined portfolios. This remains a dilemma which we hope that visibility through Tesco Agri T-Jam can clarify for us.
In our view, innovation often happens in the spaces between conventionally defined sectors, where the transfer of technology and ideas across boundaries can open up exciting opportunities. This is why we have built up particular expertise in bringing product design engineering into agritech.
Senesino’s investors include our founder’s family, two private investors with veterinary backgrounds, and a branch of our research institute partner in Scotland, Moredun.
What is your current view of the livestock technology space?
With the world’s population expanding rapidly and the demand for protein expanding even faster, the need for human ingenuity has never been greater. Livestock farming has been around for eons and will in the future provide the bulk of the protein requirement for the human race. The pressure is on the livestock farming sector worldwide to continue to improve the yield from its production, something which the sector has done, is doing, and will continue to do as it embraces technological advances in all forms.
Zoetis’ acquisition of Performance Livestock Analytics earlier this year marked a major milestone for the livestock tech space. Find out why here
Animal welfare is a vital part of this expansion. Animal welfare is an economic as well as a cultural issue and is therefore bound up in the expansion of livestock production. Technological advances relating to animal welfare are part of this. We have a very positive outlook on tech expansion in our sector.
Where do you see other opportunities for innovation in livestock production?
Numnuts has already started trialing the extension of its current system into the cattle sector, including beef and dairy. We have also seen opportunities to extend the approach based on our existing intellectual property into the pig industry. Both of these lines of development are closely based on the invaluable experience which we have built up through Numnuts for sheep.
Beyond Numnuts we are working with Australian Wool Innovation on shearing technology, an area where human resources are becoming ever tighter. We’ve also worked in the area of dairy health and vaccine production in the sheep industry.