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Saltbush benefits for sheep and farmers

CSIRO : 16 October, 2006  (Technical Article)
Salinity and meat researchers in Western Australia have identified a major nutritional benefit for sheep grazed on saltbush, a plant which is being used extensively to reduce dryland salinity levels.
The recent collaborative study involving CSIRO, Murdoch University and the Department of Agriculture Western Australia revealed high vitamin E levels in the meat of sheep grazed on saltbush.

Low vitamin E levels in dry summer feed can lead to a muscle wasting condition in sheep known as nutritional myopathy. Currently farmers use synthetic vitamin E supplements to protect sheep against this disease, however, using supplements can be time-consuming and costly. In recent years farmers have become more aware of the importance of vitamin E and its use has increased markedly.

In an experiment undertaken in Wickepin, Western Australia, with producer Ashley Lewis, CSIRO Livestock Industries and Murdoch University PhD student, Kelly Pearce, found that grazing hoggets on saltbush, supplemented with barley, resulted in a boost in vitamin E content of the meat from 2.5 to 6.5 mg/kg. Levels this high would easily protect sheep from nutritional myopathy.

Ms Pearce said that finding had been welcomed by salinity researchers.

'Dryland salinity is Australia's most serious environmental issue with some two million hectares of agricultural land reported by farmers as showing signs of salinity,' she says.

'This is a preliminary result but the findings of high vitamin E levels could be good news for producers managing salt-land pastures.'

Vitamin E is plentiful in green pastures but not in the dry stubble of summer pastures or grain, resulting in the need for vitamin E supplements.

'Even if the sheep were to graze dry stubble and saltbush concurrently, they would benefit from the extra vitamin E,' Ms Pearce says.

Ms Pearce's colleague, Dr Robin Jacob from the Department of Agriculture, Western Australia, found meat from saltbush-grazed sheep retained a fresh red colour for significantly longer than meat from similar sheep grazing dry stubble with a barley supplement.

This finding has the potential to improve the retail shelf life of the meat, a significant benefit to both meat retailers and consumers. Meat retailers view meat colour as the most important attribute of sheep meat.

'Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and has been shown to improve the colour stability and shelf life of beef,' Ms Pearce says.

'However, very little work has as yet been done on Vitamin E and the colour stability in sheep meat.

The Vitamin E findings follow a number of other positive results from the three-year study.

Ms Pearce found that, meat from lambs grazed on saltbush grown on saline land is leaner than regular lamb and its consumer appeal is equal to grain-fed lamb. Saltbush lamb is also more hydrated than regular lamb and this may further improve carcass attributes such as carcass weight.

The saltbush and sheep meat research also received support from both the CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity and the Australian Sheep Industry CRC.
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