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Beyond the Bale : March 2013
33 ON-FARM Tony York says the key to farming sheep profitability in the lower rainfall areas is to be committed to producing a quality product. March 2013 BEYOND THE BALE Tony's brother Simon grazed a small area of their wheat crop in early August last year, and while it wasn't a formal trial, Simon doesn't believe there was any significant yield loss from the grazing. He is considering running more formal trials next year, and is convinced it's another important management tool in the farming system. The York brothers agist some sheep during the autumn period to neighbouring farms, but Tony says the introduction of saltbush and bluebush onto the property almost 25 years ago has made the most significant difference to his sheep grazing opportunities. "We've been building it up over the past 25 years. When Simon and I first started farming 30 years ago, there was no productivity on that salt land, it was written off. Over the past 25 years, we've managed to get some productivity out of it -- we've fenced it, we've planted bluebush, and then saltbush." NEW ELITE SALTBUSH VARIETIES For the past 10 years, Tony and Simon have hosted a series of Land, Water & Wool, and Future Farm Industries Cooperative Research Centre experiments, run by Dr Hayley Norman from CSIRO, affectionately called the "Old Man Saltbush Improvement Project". Run over three stages, the project began with 60,000 seedlings of Old Man Saltbush varieties, collected from its native habitat, planted out across three trial sites throughout Australia. One of those trial sites was at the York property in Tammin. 20,000 seedlings were planted on the property in 2006, and after six years, 12 elite varieties have now been chosen for extensive testing prior to commercial release of the first cultivars in 2013. Dr Norman said the project was a little unusual in that it allowed the sheep to identify their favourite plants on the trial plot. "We got the sheep to tell us what the best plants in the trial were, and interestingly, the sheep had very similar preferences at all three sites. They chose to eat the most nutritious plants and we've now confirmed the wisdom of their choices scientifically," Dr Norman said. Economic modelling in the early stages of the project indicated that the biggest limitation to using saltbush as a fodder crop was low digestibility of its biomass. "While the plant was extremely well adapted to dry areas, its biggest problem was that it didn't have much energy value for sheep -- although it was great for protein, it was a poor energy supplement," she said. "We think these new elite lines will solve that issue and produce up to eight times more bio-mass than what is currently available in common saltbush plants, and they will be 20 per cent more digestible." Dr Norman said saltbush should be viewed only as a supplement during the autumn feed gap, not a diet in its own. "Research has shown that, ideally, sheep should only eat 30-50 per cent of their diet of saltbush. However, saltbush is high in crude protein and sulphur, as well as Vitamin E, all of which are limited through summer and autumn, and so sheep grazed on saltbush will produce more wool, and better quality wool. "Tony is probably growing 10-15 per cent more wool than he was before he actively grazed his animals on saltbush, and the wool is of a better tensile strength than it otherwise would have been. They have tried many other perennials, such as lucerne and grasses, and they keep coming back to saltbush." Tony is also excited about the results of the trial, saying the new elite lines of the Old Man Saltbush had the potential to revolutionise the pastoral industry in Australia. "When we ran the livestock in the trial plots, there would be some elite varieties that the sheep would strip bare, and some other varieties, right next to them, that the sheep wouldn't touch," Tony said. "Visually, the plants look different, and are certainly more attractive, than the saltbush of 20 or 30 years ago. "Sheep are part of our system, we need sheep," Tony concluded. "They are low risk -- and right now, I'm really interested in reducing our risk. North Tammin has had very a tough run in the past eight years, with lower rainfall and frost events, and we are quite happy that we are still running livestock." "TONY IS PROBABLY GROWING 10-15 PER CENT MORE WOOL THAN HE WAS BEFORE HE ACTIVELY GRAZED HIS ANIMALS ON SALTBUSH, AND THE WOOL IS OF A BETTER TENSILE STRENGTH THAN IT OTHERWISE WOULD HAVE BEEN." DR HAYLEY NORMAN, CSIRO