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 farm 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 sheep, there's no need for farmers to supply extra feed in summer and autumn; and the native shrubs also give farmers the chance to rest other pastures.
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