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Title:
AUTOMATED WOOL HARVESTING
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2019/006513
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
Systems, apparatus, mechanisms and methods developed for automated harvesting of wool from cultivated livestock, such as sheep. A fully automated system for wool harvesting is disclosed, as well as a number of subsystems, apparatus and devices that may be employed in such a system or independently. According to one aspect of the invention an automated wool harvesting system comprises animal conveyance apparatus operative to sequentially convey animals to be processed from a containment structure to a transfer station. The transfer station includes apparatus for mechanically applying restraints to an individual animal and transferring the restrained animal to a harvesting circuit. The harvesting circuit includes at least one harvesting station having automated shearing apparatus operative to remove wool from the restrained animal.

Inventors:
RANKEN JAMES PATERSON (AU)
Application Number:
AU2018/050701
Publication Date:
January 10, 2019
Filing Date:
July 06, 2018
Export Citation:
Click for automatic bibliography generation   Help
Assignee:
RANKEN RES PTY LTD (AU)
International Classes:
A01K14/00; A01K1/06; B26B19/24; B65G47/22
Foreign References:
GB2048045A1980-12-10
US4892062A1990-01-09
US5852989A1998-12-29
US5070818A1991-12-10
US3145607A1964-08-25
AU3590478A1979-11-15
NZ314626A1997-10-24
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
DAVIES COLLISON CAVE PTY LTD (AU)
Download PDF:
Claims:
CLAIMS

1. An automated wool harvesting system comprising:

animal conveyance apparatus operative to sequentially convey animals to be processed from a containment structure to a transfer station;

the transfer station including apparatus for mechanically applying restraints to an individual animal and transferring the restrained animal to a harvesting circuit;

the harvesting circuit including at least one harvesting station having automated shearing apparatus operative to remove wool from the restrained animal.

2. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 1 wherein the containment structure comprises one or more single-file races, each single file race having a central longitudinal barrier separating left and right standing platforms such that an animal standing in the race is required to have left and right legs disposed to opposite sides of the barrier.

3. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 2 wherein a plurality of races is provided and arranged parallel and adjacent to one another, the containment structure being laterally moveable to facilitate loading and unloading of animals into the respective races by way of an access port.

4. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 2 wherein the or each race has an access port at one end configured to admit animals thereinto, the containment structure being moveable from side to side, transverse to the longitudinal extent of the races, to enable selected positioning of the access port.

5. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 2, 3 or 4 wherein the central barrier and standing platforms are relatively translatable to increase the vertical distance between the top of the barrier and the standing platforms whereby animals in the race can be at least substantially supported on the central barrier.

6. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 5 wherein the central longitudinal barrier of the race includes a central beam structure coupled to be mechanically driven in cyclic fashion so as to lift and convey animals in the race step-by-step in a rearward direction.

7. A method for automated wool harvesting comprising:

admitting a plurality of animals to be processed into a containment structure;

sequentially conveying the animals to be processed from the containment structure to a transfer station;

mechanically restraining and transferring an individual animal onto a harvesting circuit; mechanically advancing the restrained animal along the circuit to at least one harvesting station; and

at the at least one harvesting station, harvesting wool from the restrained animal by use of automated shearing apparatus.

8. An animal containment and conveyance apparatus comprise at least one single-file race having a central longitudinal barrier separating left and right standing platforms, such that an animal admitted to stand in the race is required to have left and right legs disposed to opposite sides of the barrier, wherein the central barrier and standing platforms are relatively translatable to increase the vertical distance between the top of the barrier and the standing platforms whereby animals in the race can be at least substantially supported on the central barrier.

9. An animal containment and conveyance apparatus according to claim 8 wherein the central longitudinal barrier of the race includes a central beam structure coupled to be mechanically driven in cyclic fashion so as to lift and convey animals in the race step-by-step in a rearward direction.

10. An automated animal transfer apparatus in preparation for wool removal having a saddle structure adapted to support an animal straddling the structure with left and right legs disposed to opposite sides thereof, the top of the saddle structure incorporating conveyor means for selected positioning of the animal supported thereon.

11. An automated animal transfer apparatus according to claim 10 including leg catching mechanisms arranged to grasp each leg of the animal supported and selectively positioned on the saddle structure and apply a restraint in the form of a cuff or the like encircling the lower leg. 12. An automated animal transfer apparatus according to claim 11 and further including a lifting apparatus configured to lift the animal fitted with leg restraints from the saddle structure and deposit the animal upside-down on a moveable cradle.

13. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 6 wherein the transfer station includes an automated animal transfer apparatus according to any one of claims

10 to 12.

14. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 6 or 13 wherein the harvesting circuit includes an automated shearing system comprising a plurality of cradles arranged to traverse a circuit around which are located a plurality of shearing stations, each cradle being adapted to support an animal having leg restraints coupled to posture adjustment members that can be mechanically manipulated to adjust the posture of the animal, in use. 15. A shearing apparatus include a shearing device having a comb and wool severing blades with the shearing device supported on a mechanical linkage arranged to pull the shearing device from a pivotal coupling located in front of the cutting plane of the device.

16. A shearing apparatus according to claim 15 wherein the pivotal coupling is supported by a swing arm connected to a guide member arranged to be driven along a contour track, the contour track being shaped to generally correspond with the desired contour for a given shearing blow.

17. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 6, 13 or 14 including shearing apparatus according to claim 15 or 16.

18. A fleece gripping device for use in conjunction with shearing apparatus to apply tension to the animal skin during a shearing blow, including means to grip the fleece on the animal coupled to a mechanically operated lever or linkage configured to apply a tension force generally parallel to the animal skin.

19. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 6, 13, 14 or 17 further including a fleece gripping device according to claim 18.

20. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 6, 13, 14, 17 or 18 further including an apparatus for automated collection of wool harvested from a plurality of animals, wherein wool is removed from each animal in a predetermined sequence of shearing blows and collected in a plurality of storage receptacles according to the sequence.

20. A method for automated collection of wool harvested from a plurality of animals, wherein wool is removed from each animal in a predetermined sequence of shearing blows and collected in a plurality of storage receptacles according to the sequence.

AMENDED CLAIMS

received by the International Bureau on 14 November 2018 (14.11.2018)

CLAIMS

1. An automated wool harvesting system comprising:

animal conveyance apparatus operative to sequentially convey animals to be processed from a containment structure to a transfer station;

the transfer station including apparatus for mechanically applying restraints to an individual animal and transferring the restrained animal to a harvesting circuit;

the harvesting circuit including at least one harv esting station having automated shearing apparatus operative to remove wool from the restrained animal;

wherein the containment structure comprises one or more single-file races, each single file race having a central longitudinal barrier separating left and right standing platforms such that an animal standing in the race is required to have left and right legs disposed to opposite sides of the barrier, and wherein the central barrier and standing platforms are relatively translatable to increase the vertical distance between the top of the barrier and the standing platforms whereby animals in the race can be at least substantially supported on the central barrier.

2. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 1 wherein a plurality of races is provided and arranged parallel and adjacent to one another, the containment structure being laterally moveable to facilitate loading and unloading of animals into the respective races by way of an access port.

3. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 1 or 2 wherein the or each race has an access port at one end configuied to admit animals thereinto, the containment structure being moveable from side to side, transverse to the longitudinal extent of the races, to enable selected positioning of the access port.

4. An automated wool harvesting system according to claim 1, 2 or 3 wherein the central longitudinal barrier of the race includes a central beam structure coupled to be mechanically driven in cyclic fashion so as to lift and convey animals in the race step-by- step in a rearward direction.

5. A method for automated wool harvesting comprising." admitting a plurality of animals to be processed into a containment structure comprising one or more single-file races, each single file race having a central longitudinal barrier separating left and right standing platforms such that an animal standing in the race is required to have left and right legs disposed to opposite sides of the barrier, the animals being admitted to the containment structure in a forward direction;

sequentially conveying the animals to be processed from the containment structure to a transfer station, wherein the animals are conveyed from the containment structure in a rearward direction;

mechanically restraining and transferring an individual animal onto a harvesting circuit;

mechanically advancing the restrained animal along the circuit to at least one harvesting station; and

at the at least one harvesting station, harvesting wool from the restrained animal by use of automated shearing apparatus.

6. An animal containment and conveyance apparatus comprises at least one single-file race having a central longitudinal barrier separating left and right standing platforms, such that an animal admitted to stand in the race is required to have left and right legs disposed to opposite sides of the barrier, wherein the central barrier and standing platforms are relatively translatable to increase the vertical distance between the top of the barrier and the standing platforms whereby animals in the race can be at least substantially supported on the central barrier, and wherein the central longitudinal barrier of the race includes a central beam structure coupled to be mechanically driven in cyclic fashion so as to lift and convey animals in the race step-by-step in a rearward direction.

7. An automated animal transfer apparatus in preparation for wool removal having a saddle structure adapted to support an animal straddling the structure with left and right legs disposed to opposite sides thereof, the top of the saddle structure incorporating conveyor means for selected positioning of the animal supported thereon; the apparatus including leg catching mechanisms arranged to grasp each leg of the animal supported and selectively positioned on the saddle structure and apply a restraint in the form of a cuff or the like encircling the lower leg, and further including a lifting apparatus configured to lift the animal fitted with leg restraints from the saddle structure and deposit the animal upside-down o a moveable cradle.

8. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 4 wherein the transfer station includes an automated animal transfer apparatus according to claim 7.

9. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 4 or 8 wherein the harvesting circuit includes an automated shearing system comprising a pliuality of cradles arranged to traverse a circuit around which are located a plurality of shearing stations, each cradle being adapted to support an animal having leg restraints coupled to posture adjustment members that can be mechanically manipulated to adjust the posture of the animal, in use. 10. A shearing apparatus include a shearing device having a comb and wool severing blades with the shearing device supported on a mechanical linkage arranged to pull the shearing device from a pivotal coupling located in front of the cutting plane of the device.

1 1. A shearing apparatus according to claim 10 wherein the pivotal coupling is supported by a swing arm connected to a guide member arranged to be driven along a contour track, the contour track being shaped to generally correspond with the desired contour for a given shearing blow.

12. A shearing apparatus according to claim 10 or 11, further including a fleece gripping device to apply tension to the animal skin during a shearing blow, including means to grip the fleece on the animal coupled to a mechanically operated lever or linkage configured to apply a tension force generally parallel to the animal skin.

13. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 4, 8 or 9 including shearing apparatus according to any one of claims 10 to 12.

14. An automated wool harvesting system according to any one of claims 1 to 4, 8, 9 or 13 further including an apparatus for automated collection of wool harvested from a plurality of animals, wherein wool is removed from each animal in a predetermined sequence of shearing blows and collected in a plurality of storage receptacles according to the sequence.

Description:
AUTOMATED WOOL HARVESTING

FIELD

This invention relates to apparatus and methods for automated wool harvesting such as by shearing of livestock, for example sheep.

BACKGROUND

Any discussion of documents, devices, acts or knowledge in this specification is included to explain the context of the invention. It should not be taken as an admission that any of the material forms part of the prior art base or common general knowledge in the relevant art in Australia or elsewhere on or before the priority date of the disclosure and claims herein.

Sheep shearing is a physically difficult and demanding task that has in practice remained fundamentally unchanged for the past 140 years. This is despite many and varied attempts to replace or improve aspects of the job, including robotic shearing, chain or production line shearing, biological fleece removal, multiple raised platforms on which to perform the shearing (to save the shearers from having to bend over), etc.

A consistent restraint on previous attempts at improvements to the shearing functions has been the desire to maintain the fleece as a single coat. This perceived requirement has unnecessarily restricted possible solutions to the problem of automating wool harvesting. Moreover, most of the previous attempts have only concentrated on the shearing and not addressed the whole process. For example, even if the actual removal of fleece from the animal is mechanised or automated, wool harvesting may also involve manual labour to hunt sheep up one at a time to the point of capture, apply leg holders, skirt the shorn fleece, and manually place the wool into the wool press. These ancillary jobs supporting the shearing function typically cost as much as the actual shearing and, if the cost benefit of automation is to be fully realised, deserve as much attention and effort in automating. In view of the foregoing, the inventor has realised that, taking a systemic approach, it would be desirable to address all the areas of the wool harvesting process including automated delivery of the sheep, capture the individual animals, harvest their wool, skirt their fleeces and press their wool into bales. Although the invention is predominantly described in the context of shearing sheep, it should be understood that the sheep are not the only animals from which a fleece may be harvested, and the invention is not necessarily limited to that application only. SUMMARY

The present invention relates to systems, apparatus, mechanisms and methods developed for automated harvesting of wool from cultivated livestock, such as sheep. A fully automated system for wool harvesting is disclosed, as well as a number of subsystems, apparatus and devices that may be employed in such a system or independently.

According to one aspect of the invention an automated wool harvesting system comprises: animal conveyance apparatus operative to sequentially convey animals to be processed from a containment structure to a transfer station;

the transfer station including apparatus for mechanically applying restraints to an individual animal and transferring the restrained animal to a harvesting circuit;

the harvesting circuit including at least one harvesting station having automated shearing apparatus operative to remove wool from the restrained animal.

The containment structure may comprise one or more single-file races, each single file race having a central longitudinal barrier separating left and right standing platforms, such that an animal standing in the race is required to have left and right legs disposed to opposite sides of the barrier. Where a plurality of races is provided, they may preferably be arranged parallel and adjacent to one another. Each race preferably has an access port at one end configured to admit animals thereinto. The containment structure may be moveable from side to side, transverse to the longitudinal extent of the races, to enable selected positioning of the access port. For loading of the race the containment structure may be moved to align the access port with an animal entrance passage. For unloading of the animals the access port may be aligned with the transfer station.

The containment structure is preferably configured so that the central barrier and standing platforms of a race are relatively translatable to increase the vertical distance between the standing platforms and the top of the barrier, whereby animals in the race can be at least substantially supported on top of the central barrier. An operative portion of the conveyance apparatus may comprise or be incorporated into the central longitudinal barrier of the race. The barrier may include a central beam structure coupled to be mechanically driven in cyclic fashion so as to lift and convey animals in the race step-by-step in a rearward direction toward the access port.

The transfer station may include a cyclic conveyance coordinated with that of the race aligned therewith. The transfer station may include an endless conveyor belt or chain operative to support an individual animal and convey it backwards to a predetermined location with left and right legs separated to opposite sides of a supporting saddle structure.

The transfer station may include apparatus for automated application of leg restraints to an animal supported on the saddle structure. Leg catching mechanisms may be provided to grasp each leg of the animal supported on the saddle structure and apply a restraint in the form of a cuff or the like encircling the lower leg.

The harvesting circuit preferably includes a plurality of cradles supported for movement around a track. Each cradle is adapted for carrying a single animal therein with each leg restraint coupled to a respective pivotal manipulation member. The cradle may be constructed with an articulating gantry mechanism for transferring a restrained animal from the saddle structure by lifting the animal at least partially by the leg restraints onto the cradle in an inverted position. Each cradle is moveable around the circuit for positioning at the one or more harvesting stations. Each harvesting station is equipped with automated shearing apparatus for removal of wool from an animal supported in a respective cradle. The shearing apparatus may include a shearing device, for example in the form of a shearing handpiece having a comb and wool severing blades, with the shearing device supported on a mechanical linkage arranged to pull the shearing device from a pivotal coupling located in front of the cutting plane of the device (e.g. in front of the comb). The pivotal coupling may be supported by a swing arm connected to a guide member arranged to be driven along a contour track. The contour track is preferably shaped to generally correspond with the desired contour for a given shearing blow. A fleece gripping device may be employed in conjunction with shearing apparatus to apply tension to the animal skin during a shearing blow to reduce risk of injury to the animal. The gripping device may include, for example, a 'carding cloth' arrangement of oriented wire hooks that may be used to grip the fleece on the animal, coupled to a mechanically operated lever or linkage configured to apply a tension force generally parallel to the animal skin, acting in isolation or with two or more gripping devices pulling in different directions.

A sequence of shearing blows, whether performed by a single automated shearing apparatus or a plurality of different apparatus, may be performed in a predetermined order. An automated wool collection apparatus may be provided to collect wool removed from the animal in coordination with the predetermined sequence with collected wool sorted according to the body portion of the animal from which the wool has been harvested. Wool from the same body portion from a plurality of animals may be thus collected and baled together in automated fashion.

The system may include means for weighing each sheep before and after being shorn for a gauge of the amount of wool that has been harvested from each individual.

According to another aspect of the invention, a method for automated wool harvesting comprises:

admitting a plurality of animals to be processed into a containment structure;

sequentially conveying the animals to be processed from the containment structure to a transfer station;

mechanically restraining and transferring an individual animal onto a harvesting circuit; mechanically advancing the restrained animal along the circuit to at least one harvesting station; and

at the at least one harvesting station, harvesting wool from the restrained animal by use of automated shearing apparatus. BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

Further disclosure, objects, advantages and aspects of the present invention may be better understood by those skilled in the relevant art by reference to the following description of preferred embodiments taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, which are given by way of illustration only and thus not limitative of the present invention, and in which:

Figure 1 is a diagrammatic illustration of an automated wool harvesting system according to an embodiment of the invention;

Figure 2 is another diagrammatic illustration of the wool harvesting system;

Figure 3 is a flow-chart diagram of an automated wool harvesting procedure according to an embodiment of the invention'

Figures 4A, 4B and 4C are front views illustrating operation of the sheep conveyance apparatus;

Figures 5 A to 5D are side views illustrating operation of a sheep conveyance apparatus;

Figure 6 is a perspective view illustrating operation of a sheep restraint application apparatus;

Figure 7 is an overhead view illustrating operation of the sheep restraint application apparatus;

Figure 8 is a diagrammatic illustration of a sheep transfer process;

Figure 9 shows a conventional operation of a shearing mechanism;

Figure 10 shows a shearing mechanism according to an embodiment of the invention;

Figure 11 illustrates a shearing apparatus including the mechanism of Figure 10;

Figure 12 illustrates a wool gripping mechanism for use with the shearing apparatus of Figure 11;

Figure 13 illustrates a shearing blow guide plate; and

Figure 14 illustrates the basis for an automated fleece skirting system according to an embodiment of the invention. DETAILED DESCRIPTION

Systems, apparatus, mechanisms and methods developed for automated harvesting of wool from cultivated livestock, such as sheep, are described hereinafter according to embodiments of the present invention. Whilst the embodiments described are in the context of sheep, for ease of reference the individual and collective creatures may also interchangeably be referred to as 'animal(s)'. In the following description, where directional terms are used such as 'top', 'bottom', 'above' and 'below', these are generally understood to be in the ordinary sense with reference to the earth, unless the context indicates otherwise. Similarly, terms such as 'front', 'rear', 'sideways' and the like may be used with reference to a given animal being shorn, or with reference to the direction of use of a shearing handpiece, for example, depending upon the context.

An embodiment of the present invention in the form of an automated wool harvesting system 1 is diagrammatically illustrated in Figures 1 and 2. The system 1 comprises a collection of interworking subsystems in the form of mechanical apparatus and mechanisms adapted and arranged to accomplish automated wool harvesting from sheep. Specifically the system 1 comprises subsystems for:

• Loading, arrangement and conveyance of livestock to be processed (100)

• Separating and restraining individual animals (200)

• Sequential transfer and transport of restrained animals on a wool harvesting circuit (300)

• Application of automated shearing procedures (400)

• Collection of wool including skirting, sorting and baling (500)

• Release of processed animals following completion of the harvesting circuit (600)

The subsystems 100-600 and the apparatus employed therein can be implemented in various different ways, as will be apparent to those skilled in the design and construction of mechanical devices from the description provided below. Thus, whilst salient features of the subsystems, apparatus and related methods are explained in full, other details of the mechanisms that may be used to accomplish certain described functions are not necessarily shown in the drawings so as not to obscure the important aspects of the invention. The design and implementation of such details are understood to be within the ability of those having ordinary skill in the mechanical arts, without the exercise of inventive ingenuity.

Overall the system 1 is designed to allow for unshorn sheep to enter, walking of their own accord, along a passage 102, and for shorn sheep to exit walking along a passage 602, with all intervening processing stages being fully automated and not requiring human involvement during ordinary operation. The subsystem 100 is arranged to allow for a plurality of sheep (e.g. queued sheep 104) to enter, via the passage 102, a staging apparatus 110. A plurality of sheep (e.g. sheep 130) are temporarily held in the staging apparatus and delivered one-by-one to a restraint application subsystem 200 where leg and head restraints are applied to the individual animal (e.g. sheep 250). The restrained animal (e.g. sheep 350) is transferred to a processing cradle 310 which is supported for movement on tracks 320 around a circuit. In the wool harvesting circuit 300 the cradle with restrained sheep progresses through one or more automated shearing stations 400 where wool is removed from the sheep by use of a shearing mechanism 410 that operates wool shears 420. A wool collection subsystem 500 acts in coordination with the shearing stations to collect and remove harvested wool, for example through a wool removal tube 510 operating by vacuum suction (522). The wool is transferred to an automated wool storage apparatus 520 where it may be compressed (530) and baled (540). When the animal has been fully shorn, the cradle 310 progresses to the animal release subsystem 600 at which the sheep (e.g. 650) is removed from the cradle and released from restraints for exit via passage 602.

Referring to Figure 3, a procedure 2 by which wool can be harvested through use of the system outlined above is shown step-by-step in the flow chart diagram therein. The procedure begins at operation 10 with animals to be processed being loaded into races (e.g. races 115) of the staging apparatus. The staging apparatus, as described hereinbelow, is adapted to temporarily hold a plurality of animals in preparation for processing, and to convey them one-by-one (operation 20) to an apparatus for application of restraints. Each individual animal has restraints applied to the legs (operation 21), which facilitate transfer of the animal onto a processing cradle that forms part of a shearing circuit (operation 30). The restrained animal is transported, by means of the processing cradle, along the circuit to a shearing station (operation 31). At the shearing station, mechanised automated shearing apparatus is used to perform a series of predetermined shearing blows (operation 40). A series of steps 41-44 involved in operation 40 are shown greater detail in the flow chart diagram of Figure 3, and described below.

In preparation for performing a given shearing blow (the term used in the trade to describe a single forward movement of the shearers hand pushing the handpiece through the fleece) the posture of the animal may be adjusted by manipulation of the leg restraints or cradle position (step 41). Adjustment of the animal posture and/or position enables the apparatus to present for ready access the portion of fleece to be removed by the shearing blow. Of course it is desirable to not cause harm to the animal during the shearing process, which can sometimes occur during ordinary shearing by accidental laceration of the skin from the shears. The methods and systems disclosed herein employ a number of means to minimise this risk, one of which is to apply a tension across the portion of the animal's hide from which fleece is to be shorn during a given shearing blow (step 42). Once the animal's position and posture have been adjusted and skin tensioning applied, one or more corresponding shearing blows are performed (step 43). Wool that is removed by the one or more shearing blows is collected (step 44) as described further below. The steps 41-44 are repeated to remove the wool from all applicable regions of the animal.

It should be borne in mind that it is possible for more than one shearing station to be employed in a sequence along the circuit, with each shearing station adapted to remove wool from a particular region of the animal, for instance. In any event, regardless of whether one or multiple shearing stations are employed, since each shearing blow is predetermined, the wool harvested from each blow comes from a known region of the animal. Thus, collecting the wool from each shearing blow as it occurs allows for selection (i.e. 'skirting' of the fleece) to take place during the shearing process (operation 50). Wool from different regions of successive animals may be selectively collected and stored according to the region of the animal from which it was removed.

Once an animal has been fully shorn, it is transported along the circuit to a release location (operation 60). At this point the animal is transferred off the circuit and out of the processing cradle (operation 61) by removing the restraints therefrom (operation 62) and allowing the released animal to exit.

Subsystem 100

Loading, arrangement and conveyance of livestock to be processed

The subsystem 100 for loading, arrangement and conveyance of livestock to be processed, as seen in the drawings, makes use of a staging apparatus 110. The staging apparatus 110 comprises at least one elongate race 115 configured to admit a plurality of sheep in single file. For example, in the system diagram of Figure 1, the staging apparatus 110 includes three races 115A-C that are shown arranged in parallel next to one another. The system illustrated in Figure 2, on the other hand, has five parallel races 115 A-E. The staging apparatus is supported on tracks 140 so as to be moveable transversely of the longitudinal extent of the races. This allows each race 115 to be selectively aligned with the entrance passage 102 whereby sheep can be admitted to that race. Although the drawing illustrates a single entrance passage 102, multiple entrance passages may be provided to facilitate rapid filling of the races 115 in parallel. The geometry and arrangement of the races 115 is such that movement of the sheep into the race is away from the noise and action of the system, towards a perceived escape or other decoy sheep the forward end. This is for the quickest and easiest loading or filling of the races. This is known as "drawing" the sheep rather than hunting or pushing them in.

When the race or races have been filled with sheep, the staging apparatus can be moved sideways on the tracks 140 so that the rear of a race filled with sheep is aligned with the restraint application subsystem 200. In the Figure 1 diagram, race 115C is shown containing sheep 130 and aligned with the restraint applicator, whilst race 115A is aligned with the entrance passage 102 and is ready to admit more sheep to be processed.

Each race 115 is sufficiently narrow to prevent a sheep from turning around and has a central, longitudinally extending leg separation barrier 120 that forces the animals in the race to place their left and right legs to opposite sides thereof. By way of illustration, Figure 4A diagrammatically shows a race 115 in end cross-section containing a sheep 130 as it enters the race. The sheep 130 is constrained at the sides by vertical wall sections 116 connected to respective left and right floor sections 118. Between the left and right floor sections is the leg separation barrier 120. While animals are being loaded into the race 115 the barrier 120 is configured to be sufficiently low as to not impede forward movement of an animal, but high enough to separate the left and right legs of the animal to either side thereof. To encourage the sheep to straddle the separation barrier rather than standing on it, a central member 122 at the top of the barrier is configured with a laterally sloped or peaked shape which does not allow an animal to gain standing purchase thereon.

Each race 115 is part of the staging apparatus 110 and is constructed with a number of moveable components adapted to convey the sheep backwards, as described below. Firstly, the race floor 118 and separation barrier 120 are vertically displaceable relative to one another. Moreover, the separation barrier comprises outer side members 126 between which is located a cyclic conveyance mechanism 124 having central member 122 at the top thereof. Once the race or races are filled with sheep, the floors 118 either side of the separation barrier 120 are lowered (or the separation barrier is raised) leaving the sheep partly suspended by the separation barrier, hind legs just touching the floors. This configuration is illustrated in Figure 4B which also shows that the central member 122 has rotated and retracted with respect to the outer side members 126 so as to be on the top of the separation barrier for stable support of the torso of the sheep 130 without significant discomfort. As seen in Figure 4B the central member 122 retracts to marginally below the sides 126, forming a slightly concave shape to accommodate the convex shape of the sheep's torso which provides better stability of the animal. Importantly, the sheep's legs are now parted, left from right, which is the first step in being able to fully automated leg capturing and application of restraints as detailed further below.

With the sheep loaded into the races and immobilized by being at least partially suspended on the separation barrier, the staging apparatus can be moved laterally on the tracks 140 to align the rear of the first race containing sheep with a SOTI apparatus 210 (SOTI is an acronym for "separating out the individual"). The other end of this first race is now also aligned with the apparatus to deliver motive power to the cyclic conveyance mechanism 124 for movement of the sheep towards the point of delivery. Sheep are delivered backwards out of the race. For clarity in explanation this will be defined as the "reverse direction" when referring to the mechanisms moving the sheep.

The staging apparatus 110 operates to convey the sheep (130) in the race aligned with the SOTI apparatus (210) in stepwise manner as described with particular reference to Figures 4 and 5. Sheep are moved mechanically by the cyclic conveyance mechanism 124 having central member 122 at the top thereof and in the middle of the separation barrier 120 upon which the sheep are supported. Specifically the cyclic conveyance mechanism undergoes a series of cycles, wherein: i) the cycle begins with the sheep resting on the separation barrier (Figure 4B; Figure 5 A), as described above;

ii) the central member 122 is lifted above the outer side members 126, raising the sheep with it (Figure 4C; Figure 5B);

iii) the central member carrying the sheep is translated a short distance in the reverse direction (Figure 5B);

iv) the central member and sheep are lowered (Figure 5C; Figure 4B); v) the sheep rest on the outer side members 126 while the central member is translated a short distance in the forward direction to its starting position (Figure 5A; Figure 4B); vi) during the forward translation of the central member 122 it is sufficiently below the level of the side members supporting the sheep so as not to make contact with the sheep.

Figure 5D diagrammatically illustrates the cyclic process by way of arrows 129. The amount of translation of the cycle is exaggerated in the diagram, whereas typically the sheep may be translated backwards by some fraction of a body length per cycle, which may help to avoid discomfort and distress to the animals. Because the sheep are part standing and partially suspended when the central member 122 is below the level of the outer side members, the sheep tend to self correct their balance in between cycles and so remain in a good posture and upright position. This is important for consistent accurate automated capture at the next stage.

Subsystem 200

Separating and restraining individual animals

The staging apparatus 110 of subsystem 100 is designed to convey the animals in sequential manner to the SOTI apparatus 210 wherein an individual animal is delivered for application of restraints. The SOTI process and restraint application is explained below with reference to Figures 6 and 7.

The SOTI apparatus 210 includes a saddle beam structure 220 suitable for supporting a single animal at a time, having upright outer side members 226 that are operatively aligned in direction and height with the separation barrier 120 of the race. The saddle beam structure also has a central member 222 that is arranged to cycle in coordination with the central member 122 of the aligned race, whereby sheep are in use progressively transferred from the separation barrier to the saddle beam structure. The saddle beam structure further includes conveyor chains 228 along the top thereof, for example between the outer side members 226 and central member 222. Once an individual sheep (250) is suspended on the conveyor chains the central member 222 can cease cyclic operation and the sheep can be moved backwards by means of the conveyor chains, which permits more accurate positioning of the animal. While conveyor chains are the preferred method for movement, belts or narrow walking beams or the like could be used instead. A limit of travel switch, for example, may be used to sense the location of the sheep and stop the conveyor chains so each sheep stops accurately and consistently in the same position on SOTI apparatus.

With the sheep 250 in an accurately known position on the SOTI apparatus 210, a head restraining mechanism 240 may be applied to help restrain the sheep for subsequent processes. Body restraining members (not shown in the drawings) may also come in sideways onto the sheep, for example through slots in the doors that have been forming the sides of the race adj acent the SOTI apparatus. The doors may then open away leaving the sheep ready for the next process, which includes automated leg capturing. Of course the means and mechanisms for restraining the sheep should not cause pain or significant discomfort to the animal, but should nevertheless be firm enough to prevent substantial movement, which in fact tends to reduce the incidence of sheep struggling to free themselves.

The system as described above also forms the basis for the process of automated leg capturing, in that it sets up the separation of the sheep's legs by having the sheep straddle the separation barrier of the race as they walk into it, following which the floors are lowered away. This then permits the sheep 250 to be accurately located on the saddle beam structure 220 of the SOTI apparatus with left and right side legs to either side thereof. The view seen in Figure 6 shows the right-hand side front and rear legs 251, 252 of the sheep 250. Automated leg capture is facilitated by the planar upright outer side members 226 of the saddle beam structure, because the sheep is suspended over this with its legs already separated. The flat surfaces of the outer side members 226 create a guiding surface for the leg catchers to follow along as they "sweep" around the legs (for example in the direction of arrows 260).

To assist in the automated leg capture, push plates 232, 236 are positioned by means of mechanisms 230, 235 to give support to the upper legs of the sheep, and prevent the sheep's legs from just folding or moving away as the leg catchers move against the lower legs (the part of the leg they are designed to capture). Figure 7 diagrammatically illustrates a leg catcher 265 arranged to capture the right-hand side rear leg 252 by sweeping in the direction of arrow 260. Specifically, the hook portion 266 may be placed in contact with the surface of the outer side member 226 in front of the leg 252 and then drawn backward to capture the lower leg. Once the leg is captured between the push plate 232 and catcher 265, a suitable restraint can be automatically applied to the lower leg, such as a strap, cuff, shackle or the like. The remaining legs of the sheep 250 may be captured and restraints applied in similar manner, whether simultaneously or sequentially.

Subsystem 300

Sequential transfer and transport of restrained animals on a wool harvesting circuit

Following application of restraints to the individual sheep, including at least leg and head restraint means, the animal may be transferred onto the wool harvesting circuit of subsystem 300. The wool harvesting circuit comprises a plurality of processing cradles 310 arranged to travel around a circuit track 320 (Figures 1 and 2). Indeed the restraints applied to the animal are preferably part of or coupled to the cradle 310, although the details are not shown in the drawings. The cradle 310 preferably has an articulating structure 312, coupled to the various restraint means, that can be extended over the sheep positioned on the saddle beam structure 220. Then, once the restraints have been applied, the articulating structure is retracted bringing the restrained animal with it. In retracting the articulating structure of the cradle the sheep may be lifted primarily by the leg restraints 315 (additional support for the body of the animal may also be employed during this process, such as a support around the crutch area) and the animal is flipped over to rest in an inverted position on the cradle 310. This is diagrammatically illustrated in Figure 8 where a sheep 350 is transferred from the saddle beam structure 220 to a trolley 314 forming part of the processing cradle and moveable on circuit track 320. The articulating structure 312 is shown in the simplified diagram of Figure 8. In Figure 2 the cradle 310A can be seen with articulating structure 312 extended over the saddle beam structure 220 for engagement of the restraints, whereas the cradle 310B can be seen with the restrained sheep and structure retracted onto the trolley 314 for transport around the circuit track 320.

The sheep 350 is supported upside-down on processing cradle 310B with legs pointing generally upwards and each leg individually restrained by a respective strap or shackle (315), for example. Each leg restraint is preferably coupled to a respective pivotal member 316 of the cradle 310 than can be mechanically manipulated in order to adjust the posture of the animal. This enables the legs and body position of the sheep in the cradle to be adjusted for access to different parts of the fleece during the automated shearing operations as described below. Whilst the pivotal members 316 coupled to the sheep leg restraints 315 may form part of the processing cradle 310, the means for applying forces to manipulate them preferably form part of the shearing stations 400, to act in concert with the shearing mechanisms 410. Further aspects of the automated shearing apparatus are explained below.

Subsystem 400

Application of automated shearing apparatus and procedures

The primary purpose of having the animal restrained and supported in the processing cradle 310 is to transport the sheep 350 around the circuit to one or more shearing stations 400. The circuit preferably includes a plurality of shearing stations 400 with each configured to harvest wool, in an automated manner, from a predetermined region of the sheep's fleece. Accordingly, the cradle is transported around the circuit track 320 (for example using electric motor driven wheels) and controlled to halt at each shearing station in turn at which the shearing operations are performed. At each shearing station 400 mechanical manipulators may be provided to engage with the pivotal members 316 on the cradle 310 and controlled to adjust the posture of the sheep 350 in preparation for each shearing blow. The mechanical manipulators are not illustrated in the drawings.

Several interworking components and apparatus of an automated shearing mechanism 410 are disclosed below. One of the primary concerns with automation of the shearing functions is to effectively remove the wool from the sheep while minimising risk of injury to the animal in the process.

When shearing is performed manually by a human operator the shears 420 are held in the operator's hand and pushed to run the shearing comb and associated reciprocating blades through the wool along the skin of the sheep (a shearing 'blow'). The operator is guided by sight, feel, and experience to maintain the shears at an appropriate angle to remove the wool without injuring the sheep. The conventional method of pushing the shears is shown in Figure 9, which also illustrates the potential negative consequences if inappropriately performed. In particular, shears 420 A are shown in ordinary use as by pushing in the direction indicated by arrow 418 so that the comb 421 passes over the sheep's skin 451. If the comb 421 hits resistance, such as a wrinkle 452 in the sheep's skin, by the pushing action the shears have a tendency to tilt up, as shown at 420B. This can cause the comb 421 and/or cutting blades to press more firmly into the sheep's skin, potentially causing injury to the animal.

A mechanical arrangement for operating the shears 420 in an automated shearing apparatus according to embodiments of the present invention is shown in Figure 10. In this case, a handpiece extension 425 is attached to the shears 420, extending forward of the comb 421. A pull linkage 430 is pivotally coupled to the end of the handpiece extension at 426, and angled obliquely away from the skin 451 of the animal being shorn. This arrangement allows the shears 420 to be driven by a pulling action from the pull linkage 430, rather than the shears being pushed as in the conventional operation. The effect of this arrangement is that, when the comb encounters a skin wrinkle (e.g. 452) the pulling action tends to lift the shears over the obstacle thereby avoiding injury to the sheep.

Figure 11 shows the mechanical shearing arrangement of Figure 10 along with associated apparatus making the basis for the automated shearing apparatus 410. As shown, the handpiece extension 425 may be laterally offset from the shears 420 by means of a lateral coupling 424.

This allows for clearance away from the sheep's body and fleece so that the pulling linkages don't get tangled. It can be offset either left or right. The pull linkage 430 is itself coupled to a drive member 435 at a pivotal connection 431. The pivot axes of both couplings 426 and 431 are substantially parallel with a line extending across the front of the comb 421. The elongate drive member 435 extends behind the shears 420 and can be driven by a linear actuator 438 coupled thereto by a universal coupling 436.

By virtue of the mechanical arrangement of the shearing apparatus 410, the handpiece of the shears 420 'floats' in one plane only, so the comb can follow the minor variations in the contours of the sheep, whilst maintaining a relatively constant angle of attack to the sheep's skin. The floating action is assisted by the handpiece or handpiece extension 425 being suspended by a tension spring 428 coupled to the drive member 435, in conjunction with the pulling linkages as above described. The shears 420 may be also guided over the major contours of the sheep by means of a guide wheel 440 connected at the end of the drive member 435 near the pivotal connection 431, which is engaged to follow a runner track 445 shaped according to the general contour of the sheep according to the particular shearing blow. The distal end of the runner track 445 is coupled to an adjustable height leg 490 that allows the runner track to be appropriately positioned relative to the animal. The leg 490 is adjustable by telescopic action between the runner track support 492 and the foot 491. In use, the foot 491 is lowered onto the sheep forward of the shears and in a location that relates to the shearing blow to be performed. Once the appropriate height setting has been determined for a particular shearing blow, this adjustment mechanism provides a highly robust and reliable arrangement for setting the runner track distance above different sized sheep. Since the foot 491 is in contact with the sheep, this locates the shears relative to the particular animal, rather than being arbitrarily positioned. This allows the 'floating' handpiece, guided by the runner track 445 to accurately follow the contours of the sheep's hide during the shearing blow.

Although the shearing apparatus 410 as described provides a relatively simple and robust means for separating the wool from the sheep, alternative mechanisms for guiding the shears may also be employed in the system disclosed herein and its various aspect. For example, the path of the shears could also be created by movement of a programmed robotic apparatus.

The shearing handpiece can be set at various angles to the pull linkage as may be desired according to wool characteristics or shearing blow. Moreover, the handpiece angles can include side slipping or crabbing. This can minimise the chance of a tooth of the comb from penetrating the sheep's skin. It can also flatten loose skin rather than a fold of loose skin rising up between teeth of the comb to then be cut. Side slipping is particularly useful for shearing near the female sheep's vulva and teats. It can also be used near the eyes, ears and any other area of loose skin. If necessary, the handpiece may also be caused (e.g. by the linear actuator 438 or a cam driven device, not shown) to oscillate back and forward (in the same axis as its direction of travel) while at the same time continuing in a forward direction through the fleece. This feature may be necessary for shearing certain "tough" areas such as the lower legs where felting of the wool tends to occur and entry of the tip of the comb into the fleece is more difficult.

In conventional shearing procedures, there are some places on a sheep where there is the need to start a "shearing blow" but lowering the handpiece onto the sheep's skin at that point requires accurate hand eye coordination, because misalignment could cause the comb to injure the sheep. For automated shearing this presents a challenge that is addressed by use of a guide plate as illustrated in Figure 13. Specifically, a guide plate 460 is provided for safely positioning and aligning a handpiece (prior to shearing) so it can move off the plate onto the sheep's skin at the correct angle to the skin, without causing injury to the sheep. The drawing illustrates a virtual cross-section through the animal leg (bone and flesh 454, 453) during use of the guide plate 460, wherein a section of the leg 455 has already been shorn and a section 456 has wool still remaining to be harvested. The guide plate 460 has a substantially flat surface with an end 461 that can be placed on or very close to the skin of a sheep at the location of the start of the intended shearing blow for the purpose of creating a guiding surface for the shearing comb 421. In use, the underside of the comb 421 is lowered onto the guide plate surface then moved substantially parallel with the surface as the handpiece' s comb slides across the surface. Thus, when the comb leaves the end of the guide plate surface, and its movement is in the same direction on the skin of the sheep, shearing the wool from that skin. This method of using a physical guide plate is a highly reliable, robust, and mechanically simple solution for guiding a handpiece past the problem area and onto the sheep's skin at the correct angle to begin shearing that area. Another way in which potential injury to the sheep from the shears during automated shearing processes can be minimised involves a stretching or tightening of the sheep's skin during use of the shears on that portion of the skin. This method may be used to avoid formation of skin wrinkles that could be consequentially lacerated by the shears. An apparatus 470 that can be used to apply skin tension by gripping the wool itself is shown in Figure 12.

Unlike hair, wool tends to entangle or felt, particularly at the outer surface of a sheep's fleece. This characteristic can be exploited when handling sheep and wool. Thus, in a preferred form of the apparatus 470 hooks of the type found in carding cloth or on file brushes is used to grip the surface of the fleece while on the sheep. The hooks are typically made from bending the terminal end of a fine gauge wire. Multiple wires of the same length with the bend in the same direction can be used to create a substantially flat 'surface' of the carding cloth or file brush. The apparatus 470 shown in Figure 12 may be anchored at 471 to a component of the automated shearing apparatus that remains stationary relative to the sheep during a shearing blow, for example the guide rail 445 (Figure 11). The carding cloth or brush 474 is mounted on a member 473 with bristles (hooks 475) facing the unshorn fleece 456. The member 473 is moveable toward and away from the fleece as indicated by arrows 479. The member 473 is mounted on a swing arm 472 that permits movement relative to the fixed anchor 471 to engage or disengage the hooks 475 with the fleece (directionally represented by arrows 477 and 478, respectively). When the apparatus 470 is operated to press the bristles of the brush into the fleece, and the brush is drawn against the hook direction (i.e. in the direction of arrow 477), the hooks engage with the fleece allowing a tension to be applied to the underlying skin 451. With tension applied to the skin, a shearing blow performed on the adj acent fleece is less likely to encounter wrinkles in the skin that can cause injury to the sheep. Movement of the brush 474 in the opposite direction (arrow 478) allows the hooks to disengage and thereby permit the brush to be drawn away from the fleece for repositioning for the next shearing blow.

As mentioned this apparatus provide means to apply tension to the sheep's skin. The tensioning of a sheep's skin to reduce wrinkles or folds is important for shearing wool from that area without cutting that skin. The apparatus can also be use to open or part a region of fleece to create an entry point for the shearing comb. This can be accomplished, for example, using two sets of brushes, close to one another, facing and pulling in opposite directions, acting in concert to be lowered onto the fleece surface then moved apart. The apparatus may also be used to carry shorn wool away from the shearing handpiece and sheep.

Although carding cloth type hooked brushes are the preferred material for this application, other materials can alternatively be used to apply friction to connect to the surface of a fleece such as a coarse sandpaper, shaped rubber, 'Velcro' or the like. Additionally or alternatively, driven friction rollers ahead of the comb may be employed to roll out skin wrinkles.

Subsystem 500

Collection of wool including skirting, sorting and baling

Traditionally, 'skirting' is the manual process of separating parts of a sheep's fleece from other parts according to certain characteristics. Generally this involves removing inferior quality wool types that are then used by the wool processing trade for different applications. Skirtings may, for example, comprise shorter length wool, wool stained by urine and faeces, and wool from lower parts of the sheep's body that has collected grass seeds and bur. Conventional shearing methods revolve around keeping the sheep's fleece in one piece so it can be carried to a wool table, spread out then manually skirted.

The automated shearing system and method disclosed herein permits the skirting process to also be automated. This method of fully automated skirting differs from the tradition in that it begins with the concept of not keeping the fleece as a whole during the shearing process. It is also predicated on the understanding that the skirtings typically come from the same parts of the body on each sheep. For instance dag (faeces stuck to wool) is always near the sheep's anus and frib is the shorter sometimes stained wool closest to the bare skin under a sheep's legs.

As described hereinabove, this fully automated shearing system 1 involves a series of shearing (harvesting) stations along a circuit production line. Each shearing station 400 may be configured to perform only a few simple predetermined shearing blows on each sheep. Moreover, each shearing handpiece performing those simple blows does so at the same place on every sheep. Therefore the wool being removed is always coming from the same place on each sheep. By collecting the wool separately from each shearing station, the system is by its nature already effective in separating the various parts of the fleece.

The wool collection subsystem is diagrammatically shown in Figures 1 and 2, for example, having separate wool removal tubes 51 OA, 510B associated with separate automated shearing station mechanisms 41 OA, 410B (Figure 1). The harvested wool is drawn through the tubes 510, for example using vacuum suction means 522, to a wool storage apparatus 520. The wool collected from different shearing stations 400 can be maintained in separate storage compartments for pre-compression (530) and baling (540). The first chamber 530 does an initial compression and the final compression is done in a wool-press. The open end 511 of the vacuum driven collection tube 510 can be mounted close to an associated shearing handpiece 420 of a given shearing station 400, as diagrammatically seen in Figure 14, for example. Indeed the end of the collection tube 510 may be mounted to travel with the shearing handpiece 420, although a coupling between the two components is not seen in the drawings. Additionally or alternatively, hooks brushes, mechanical fingers, blowing with an air blast, conveyors, collection funnel or the like can be used to move the shorn wool away from the point of severance before collection into the tube 510.

Subsystem 600

Release of processed animals following completion of the harvesting circuit

Once all of the wool has been harvested from a particular sheep, the cradle 310 in which the animal is held travels around the circuit to an animal release apparatus 600. The release apparatus may simply operate in reverse manner to the way in which the restrained sheep was first transferred from the saddle beam structure 220 to a trolley 314. The articulating structure 312 of the cradle 310 is used to lift the sheep, primarily by means of the leg restraints 315, and return the animal feet down into an exit passage 602. The leg and other restraints can then be automatically removed from the sheep 650, which is allowed to make its own way away from the system 1.

The foregoing description of automated wool harvesting systems, methods, apparatus and devices includes disclosure of many features conceived and reduced to practice by the inventor, pertinent aspects of which are outlined below.

An automated wool harvesting system and/or method as disclosed herein may be provided to include one or more of:

• continuous reliable automated delivery of a number of sheep to a point of capture;

• automated capture including automated application of leg holders;

• automated transfer of sheep from the capturing station onto a carousel, or railway track or conveyor;

• a number of harvesting stations;

• an automated unloading station;

• automated manipulation of the posture of the sheep to best present parts of the sheep's fleece;

• automated tensioning of the appropriate part's of the sheep's skin to best present a flattened skin for harvesting wool from; • at each harvesting station automated removal of a portion of a sheep's fleece;

• wool automatically collected at each station then automatically transferred into the appropriate wool press;

• wool automatically pressed; and

• fully automated skirting of the fleece as a result of the combination of only harvesting from specific areas on the sheep that differ and collecting the wool at those specific points of harvesting.

An automated animal delivery system as disclosed herein may be provided to include single or multiple parallel adjustable width single file sheep races where:

• sheep loading movement is away from noise and action for ease of filling;

• sheep straddle a raised central member with a tapered top;

• floors lower or central member rises leaving sheep partially suspended;

• races are translatable to move sideways;

• sheep are delivered backwards;

• sheep are moved by a central beam cycling; and

• sheep self-correct their balance between cycles.

For the purposes of separating out an individual sheep for automated shearing the systems and/or methods may utilise:

• suspending or supporting sheep on a central member similar to the race delivery system;

• cycling the central member in coordination with the race delivery;

• conveyor chains or belts forming or incorporated in the top of the sides of the central member;

• a limit of travel switch to stop the sheep movement in a predetermined location;

• a head restraint mechanism to hold the sheep; and

• a body restraint mechanism to hold and pacify the sheep.

Means and methods for automated positioning of a sheep's legs automated capture and application of restraints to the legs as disclosed herein may include: • separation of the sheep's legs by a predetermined distance by straddling the central member of the delivery race as they enter it;

• support or suspension of the sheep by the central member in contact with the animal's belly with it's legs parted by the predetermined distance;

· the two sides of the central member supporting the suspended sheep having substantially flat defined surfaces;

• leg catching mechanisms that fold in against the defined surfaces then sweep to capture the legs; and

• push plates that bear against the sheep's upper limbs to give opposing resistance for the leg catchers to work against.

Automated guidance of a wool severance mechanism (commonly known as a shearing handpiece) as disclosed herein may be provided with features in which:

• the handpiece is pulled, rather than pushed;

· the pull may be offset so as not to interfere with the fleece as it is removed;

• the handpiece has a degree of float, suspended by a spring or the like;

• the handpiece is guided to follow a predetermined path or contour similar to the shape of the sheep;

• the handpiece can be set at a selected angle relative to its direction of travel; and · the handpiece can be made to oscillate.

As disclosed herein, a means for connection and disconnecting to the surface of a sheep's fleece during automated wool harvesting may include:

• multiple bent wire hooks (such as used in 'carding cloth') to readily connect to the surface of a sheep's fleece;

• using engagement to the fleece to apply tension to the sheep's skin;

• parting or opening the fleece at a selected location for the purposes of shearing;

• using engagement with the fleece to carry shorn wool away;

• alternative use of other materials such as course sandpaper, rough rubber, velcro or the like. As disclosed herein, a guide plate an associated method for safely positioning and aligning a handpiece (prior to shearing) so it can move off the plate onto the sheep's skin at the correct angle to the skin, without causing injury to the sheep may include:

• a substantially flat surface placed on or close to the skin of a sheep for the purpose of creating a guiding surface for a shearing handpiece;

• a handpiece lowered onto the surface then moved substantially parallel with the surface as the handpiece's comb slides across the surface;

• a handpiece sliding off (leaving) the flat surface and continuing it's movement in the same direction on the skin of the sheep shearing the wool from that skin.

Methods and systems disclosed herein allow for sorting or 'skirting' of the harvested wool where:

• the fleece is not shorn as a whole but rather removed from portions of the sheep in a predetermined sequence;

• separation of the fleece occurs at the point of shearing rather than as a post-procedure;

• the method exploits the fact that inferior wool in a fleece usually comes from the same places on each sheep;

• the sheep is shorn at a series of harvesting positions or stations along a production line;

• a few simple shearing blows may occur at each harvesting station, removing the same type of wool from each sheep;

• a vacuum collection inlet is mounted close to each handpiece to collect and remove wool as it is taken off the sheep;

• hooks, mechanical fingers, blowing with an air blast , conveyors, or the like can also be used to move the shorn wool away from the point of severance;

• the shorn wool is transferred direct to the wool press.

The structure and implementation of embodiments of the invention has been described by way of non-limiting example only, and many additional modifications and variations may be apparent to those skilled in the relevant art without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention described.

Throughout this specification and the claims which follow, unless the context requires otherwise, the word "comprise", and variations such as "comprises" and "comprising", will be understood to imply the inclusion of a stated integer or step or group of integers or steps but not the exclusion of any other integer or step or group of integers or steps.




 
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