Farm fodder project relies on feedback from 'smart' sheep

Oct 02, 2013 by Tony Malkovic
Farm fodder project relies on feedback from ‘smart’ sheep
Paddock project … Professor Phil Vercoe in one of the Enrich paddocks on the UWA Future Farm 2050 property at Pingelly. Credit: Tony Malkovic

In a paddock on a farm near Pingelly, south-east of Perth, Phil Vercoe is standing in a one-hectare paddock which is part of an award-winning research project being guided mainly by … sheep.

In effect, the paddock is his laboratory and the sheep that forage in it – ewes and hoggets – are nibbling their way through a smorgasbord of 10 species of native shrubs planted neatly in rows.

The aim is to determine combinations of perennial native shrubs that can provide profitable and sustainable grazing systems for farmers.

Professor Vercoe, of the University of WA's School of Animal Biology and Institute of Agriculture, says the sheep are smarter than most people give them credit for.

"As much as animals like to bag animals, particularly sheep, as being thick, they are so clever at what they do in terms of balancing their diet, in terms of self-medication, in terms of figuring out nutrient deficiencies and trying to find stuff that can supplement that in a selective way," he says.

The researchers are looking for the best mix of shrubs to survive harsh conditions, help reduce methane emissions and gut parasites, provide shade and shelter and, of course, taste good to the sheep.

And it's the flock's feedback that determines what works best.

"They're sniffing, sampling, and they're tasting and learning," says Prof Vercoe. "There's a feedback loop and they're going about their business and they're clever at doing it."

The sheep and the native shrubs are all part of the Enrich project which recently won a prestigious Eureka Prize for research and innovation.

The Pingelly farm site is part of the University of WA's Future Farm 2050 initiative, which is a 1600ha farm dedicated to researching better rural practices as we head to 2050, when the world's population is expected to exceed nine billion people.

The Enrich project has compiled data on more than 100 native shrubs – such as saltbush, acacia, wattle and goosefoot – and modelling has found that if farmers plant native shrubs on marginal paddocks, they can increase profitability considerably.

"Ten to 15 per cent of your marginal country, planted with shrubs, will make you more profitable," says Prof Vercoe.

He says the reason for the increase in profits is two-fold: with native shrubs feeding the , there's no need for farmers to supply extra feed in summer and autumn; and the also give the chance to rest other pastures.

Explore further: Sustainable livestock production is possible: New research advocates use of pastures with shrubs and trees

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Cockatoos find food in rehabilitated forest

Sep 24, 2013

Murdoch University researchers have found that Western Australia's iconic black cockatoos have been drawn to a new food source – rehabilitated mining pits.

Citizens 'can help save our wildlife'

Jul 31, 2013

Farmers and city people can play a key role in saving Australia's native animals and plants by small changes to the way they manage their paddocks and backyards.

Recommended for you

Boat noise impacts development and survival of sea hares

1 hour ago

While previous studies have shown that marine noise can affect animal movement and communication, with unknown ecological consequences, scientists from the Universities of Bristol and Exeter and the École Pratique des Hautes ...

Classic Lewis Carroll character inspires new ecological model

17 hours ago

Inspired by the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, collaborators from the University of Illinois and National University of Singapore improved a 35-year-old ecology model to better understand how species ...

Saving seeds the right way can save the world's plants

21 hours ago

Exotic pests, shrinking ranges and a changing climate threaten some of the world's most rare and ecologically important plants, and so conservationists establish seed collections to save the seeds in banks ...

User comments : 0