Saltbush may be easy fix

Lauren CelenzaCountryman

Keeping lambs topped up with vitamin E may be as easy as them nibbling on saltbush.

University of WA PhD student Chelsea Fancote is researching how the native, salt-tolerant fodder shrub can prevent vitamin E deficiency in dry months and while feed-lotting.

Originally from a wheat and sheep farm in Brookton, Ms Fancote said her research not only put another tick in the box for saltbush, but could also lead to further research into the vitamin content of other native perennials.

She said farmers could easily incorporate saltbush into sheep meat production without compromising growth and carcase weight before slaughter.

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Ms Fancote said using a vitamin E supplement was increasingly becoming standard practice for lambs going into a feedlot.

“I found that animals that had eaten saltbush had a marked increase in their plasma vitamin E levels, ” she said.

“The meat from these animals also contained higher levels of vitamin E than meat from animals that had not eaten saltbush.”

Instead of trying to finish on saltbush, Ms Fancote backgrounded lambs on it over summer.

For eight weeks in January and February she studied sheep grazed on saltbush while being supplemented with just 150g/head/day of barley grain.

This allowed them to maintain weight with minimal inputs and boost their vitamin E levels before going into a feedlot.

“I looked at the ability of saltbush to provide a natural, cheap and effective source of vitamin E as opposed to using a synthetic vitamin E supplement, ” Ms Fancote said.

“Vitamin E is mainly found in green feed so during winter, deficiency is not much of a problem, but in long dry periods, such as last year, the prolonged lack of green feed means that animals, especially fast-growing prime lambs, can be susceptible to vitamin E deficiency.

“Vitamin E is an antioxidant and its main function in animals is to protect the tissue from free radical damage.

“Signs of deficiency are things like a hunched back, a stilted gait, an inability to stand and, in severe cases, death.”

Ms Fancote said those symptoms were more anecdotally reported in feedlot situations.

“Having saltbush as part of a system where they may eat it for a little while or have access to it while being grain fed over summer can be a fail-safe way to prevent vitamin E deficiency, ” she said.

Ms Fancote said the intake of saltbush varied widely among the test animals — some selecting a diet containing as low as 10 per cent saltbush, while others had up to 40 per cent of their diet as saltbush.

“However, this did not translate into any differences in vitamin E levels, so having a diet containing as low as 10 per cent saltbush can still provide enough vitamin E to prevent deficiency, ” she said.

Ms Fancote hopes to be able to also determine whether short-term grazing of saltbush has the same effect as long-term grazing which would mean farmers could put sheep onto saltbush for as little as four days to increase vitamin E levels.

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