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Unit 1 - What's in it for me?
Unit 2 - Saltland Basics
Unit 3 - Can I trust the technology?
Unit 4 - Plant and animal performance
Unit 5 - Sheep, cattle and conservation
Unit 6 - Do the $$$'s stack up?
Unit 7 - The saltland toolbox
Site Assessment
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UNIT 5

Sheep, cattle and conservation

 

5.1  Issues for sheep

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There is considerable research and anecdotal evidence to show that sheep can benefit from improved saltland pastures due to the increased pasture growth, and/or improved nutritive value, and/or the relatively high value of out-of-season production. An added benefit is the buffering effect of saltland pastures in a bad year and the contribution this makes to risk management.

The Sustainable Grazing on Saline Lands (SGSL) initiative demonstrated that the profitability of a self-replacing merino flock grazing puccinellia-based pastures on moderately saline, waterlogging prone land is very dependent on effective management – just as it is for any pasture improvement investment. In this scenario, profitability increased significantly as stocking rate was able to increase with increased pasture production. The inclusion of balansa clover in the pasture mix added greatly to the profitability of the enterprise, as did better grazing management. For more information, see Saltland Solution 10 – Legumes for saltland

Tall wheatgrass can also be a highly nutritious grass, but it loses feed quality dramatically over summer. The tufting nature of tall wheatgrass has often been considered a liability, but research at the Pastoral Research Institute in Western Victoria has shown the benefit of tall wheatgrass hedges in protecting newborn lambs.

Saltbush pastures can also be profitable, particularly where waterlogging is less of a problem, but again it is important to implement the ‘right’ system [Link to Saltland Solution 3 – Dense saltbush plantings, and Saltland Solution 4 – Saltbush and understorey]. Saltbush grown on saltland is unable on its own to provide sufficient energy for sheep to maintain condition. The limiting factor is the amount of salt sheep can ingest which in turn limits the amount of saltbush biomass they will eat.

Research has shown that sheep on diets containing up to 8.5% salt experience no detrimental impact on liveweight gain. However, by the time dietary salt reaches 20%, feed intake is reduced by 55% - protein levels in saltbush however are generally satisfactory. Based on this work, pasture systems that incorporate saltbush should provide a total ration that maintains salt intake below the critical threshold, and meets energy and protein requirements

The seasonal variation in crude protein, digestibility, energy and salt content means that sheep grazing saltland pastures should be regularly condition-scored and fed supplements where necessary. If feeding saltbush in autumn when the under-storey consists of dry standing feed, then an energy supplement (grain or good quality hay) will be needed to supplement the saltbush and under-storey in order to provide a ‘better than maintenance’ ration for sheep.

Sheep drink about four extra litres of fresh water for every 100 grams of salt (or approximately 350 g of saltbush) that they consume. This adds to the 3-4 L/d they would drink when eating a non-salty, dry feed, so it is important that this extra water is available to sheep on saltbush. Remember that if the water is salty, sheep will have to drink even larger quantities of water and the additional salt intake will cause a greater rejection of the salty feed. Under these conditions, alternative supplementary sources of feed will be even more important.

Research has shown that high dietary salt intake has a positive influence on the efficiency of wool growth, however this potential benefit needs to be offset against the reduced live weight of the sheep due to reduced voluntary feed intake.

As a general rule it is most economical to graze saltland pastures with livestock that require the least supplementary feeding – e.g. wethers or dry ewes that would probably be losing weight in late summer and autumn anyway. However, aside from the protection offered to newborn lambs by tall wheatgrass and saltbush, research has also shown that a high-salt diet has no effect on pregnancy rates, lamb birth weights, lamb survival or milk composition.

Moderate amounts of sodium in either drinking water or feed can lead to a reduction in meat fat and an increase in protein in the carcass. There is some evidence that the vitamin E in saltbush gives lamb greater keeping qualities, and there is anecdotal evidence that sheep grazing saline pastures have improved eating quality. All this indicates that lambs grown or finished on a combination of saline pastures and supplements are of at least the same quality as other commercial lamb.

If sea barley grass is replaced by dominant puccinellia pastures then summer grass seed problems experienced by sheep can be largely eliminated.

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