Ethical flock management to satisfy the ‘green’ market

Australian researchers believe a move towards clean, green and ethical sheep and wool production could improve productivity, profitability and promote a more modern image of the industry.

Australian researchers believe a move towards clean, green and ethical sheep and wool production could improve productivity, profitability and promote a more modern image of the industry. Roelof Bezuidenhout summarises their research, presented at the Australian Wool Innovation World Merino Conference earlier this year.

IT SHOULDN’T BE TOO DIFFICULT FOR the sheep and wool industry to find  ways to reduce or even eliminate the usage of drugs, chemicals and hormones to satisfy the call of consumers who want clean, green and ethical animal products, say researchers from the School of Animal Biology, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Western Australia.

- Advertisement -

They say the positive aspect of the demand for “clean” products is that this demand stems from modern, high-priced markets where farmers can make large profits similar to those generated by organic products. The researchers point out that this demand is driven by market forces that are not generated by scientific argument. For example, hormonal treatment rarely leaves residues, especially after withholding periods. It’s relatively easy to show that products from animals that haven’t been treated with exogenous hormones can contain significant amounts of the same hormone.

They believe that clean, green and ethical production for farmers need not be difficult because, as scientists work towards a better understanding of the physiology and behaviour of farm animals, it becomes possible to improve productivity and profitability while promoting a modern image of the industry.

Furthermore, understanding the reproductive responses of animals to factors such as photoperiod, nutrition, socio-sexual signals and stressors, can help to develop “natural systems” as replacements for exogenous hormones and drugs to control and improve sheep productivity.

In addition, farmers can easily improve their flocks genetically through selecting for ovulation rate and temperament. Such clean, green and ethical tools can be cost-effective and improve profits, and greatly improve the image of sheep and wool in society and the marketplace. All that’s needed, the researchers suggest, is more research and development.

Suggestions for industry
Minimise the industry’s impact on the environment so it is more sustainable for the long-term future. On farms, the most important issues are the production of greenhouse gases by ruminants, the production of animal waste especially by feedlots, and the excessive use of fertiliser to generate animal feed. This also applies to industries that process products from the farm, for example, transport, abattoirs and processors. If the industry can prove it is green, it will contribute to its marketing in highly developed economies and guarantee its future.

Invest in animal welfare. Applying ethical judgment needs to be broader than just animal welfare and management on farms. It should include clean and green aspects of the transport, manufacturing and processing sectors, including the products’ processing, packaging and marketing. Animal welfare is a major concern for all industries that operate in sophisticated markets. Consumers expect products to be derived from animals that have been managed sympathetically. This can be a complex issue when, for example, avoiding using antibiotics could compromise animal welfare.

Better reproduction
Reproductive output can be hugely improved with exogenous hormone regimens or high-level reproductive technology and molecular genetics. These technologies are effective, but alternatives need to be found to cope with the changes in consumer sentiment. In addition, these technologies have little direct, short-term benefit in extensive management systems.

Research at the University of Western Australia has concentrated on the natural control systems that animals use to cope with environmental challenges to ensure reproductive success. Important are inputs from the external environment including photoperiod, socio-sexual stimuli and nutrition. Most reproductive responses to environmental factors are coordinated at brain level where all external and internal inputs ultimately converge into a common pathway that controls the secretion of gonadotrophin-releasing hormone. This hormone is the ultimate controller of the reproductive system of all animals.

The research indicates that the mix of endogenous inputs into the control of the reproductive system offers three major opportunities to manage reproductive efficiency:

Control the timing of reproductive events by using the “ram effect” or “teasing” to induce synchronised ovulation in ewes that would otherwise be anovulatory. Allowing short mating periods and concentrated lambing opens up a wide range of management possibilities such as tightly focused supplementary feeding and strategies for reducing lamb mortality.

In “focus feeding”, use the responses of the ewe to nutrition to design supplements that are aimed specifically at individual events in the reproductive process, such as egg production, embryo survival and colostrum production.

Maximise the survival and development of the newborn by using environmental management, nutrition and genetic selection. Feeding a high energy supplement for the last week of pregnancy can double colostrum production. Genetic selection for “calm temperament” will increase lamb survival. Better management practices at birth will improve the survival of the newborn lambs. Also provide a calm environment, shelter, feed and water close to the birth site as it increases the time spent there which in turn improves the development of the mother-young bond.

Finally, the research shows that skilled operators with modern instruments can identify dries, single-bearing and multiple-bearing ewes, allowing the use of specific strategies to manage their nutritional requirements. Accurate estimation of the age of a foetus will allow the use of precisely timed nutritional supplements during pregnancy.

Source: Graeme Martin, Penny Hawken, Carolina Viñoles, Beth Paganoni and Dominique Blache presented this research at the 2006 Australian Wool Innovation World Merino Conference. |fw