CRCA 2007: Getting into The Guts of a Salty Problem

How many packets of chips will a sheep eat? The answer is lots, if we were only to consider how much salt there is in potato chips.

Fortunately, sheep don’t expect packets of chips and feast on saltbush, a plant that grows readily on severely-affected saline land in Western Australia.

Ms Dianne Mayberry is a PhD student at The University of Western Australia working on a research project funded by the CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity (CRC Salinity). [17 May 2007, CRCA Conference]

Mayberry presented her research on how salt and saltbush affect the sheep’s gut, in a winning presentation as part of Showcasing CRC Early Career Scientists. This fourth plenary session of the Cooperative Research Centres Association Conference was chaired by Professor Lyn Beazley, Chief Scientist of Western Australia.

[mp3@64kbps – 9.8Mb]
[ogg vorbis – 3.6Mb]

At the Conference Gala Dinner in the evening, it was announced that Dianne Mayberry was the national winner of the Emerging Scientist Award for 2007.

During her talk, Mayberry explained that “over vast areas of salt-affected land, saltbush is one of the best plants to produce green feed for livestock to eat”.

“Sheep eat and enjoy it, so if this can be done efficiently, it is a big win for farmers, sheep and the environment”, she said.

Mayberry’s presentation slides were relevant and compelling and complemented her relaxed and easily understood statement of the problem she was trying to solve; how a sheep’s digestion system works, methods employed in her research, and a successful outcome to her study.

“Saltbush is known to be rich in protein, minerals, fibre and vitamins – all good things. But sheep grazing saltbush alone tend to lose weight.” Mayberry explained that her research demonstrated that it was not the amount of salt in the saltbush that caused the sheep not to thrive, but the rumen (important part of sheep’s digestive tract) was “less efficient on saltbush. producing less energy on which the sheep can grow.”

Mayberry concluded her talk by saying that if they can work out how to increase the amount of energy from the digestion of the saltbush, for example, by providing small amounts of barley as a supplementary feed or plant-breeders developing a better saltbush, then sheep feeding on saltbush will be an important part of an environmentally and economically sustainable farming system.

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