A sound state of bodily nutrition is the best defence against disease, be it bacterial or parasitic. That fact is well recognised by some, but despite constant extension work it never has been grasped fully by the average flock-owner; with the result that most sheep in this State, from the time they are lambed until they die, are always in a state of flux as far as nutrition is concerned. This instability is due, in the main, to seasonal conditions, which are aggravated sometimes by such things as grasshopper invasions and high rabbit populations. In some instances prolonged droughts occur and we have the picture of stockowners paying high prices for fodder, or, alternatively, seeking agistment country for their stock, in most cases much sooner than would have been necessary if they had been supplementary feeding before the drought became established. In other cases we have what might be termed "seasonal droughts", where for some months of the year there is available only dry feed of variable nutritive value and almost always deficient in protein.
Seasonal droughts occur at various times of the year in different parts of the State, but be it winter or summer the end result is the same; namely, death for some sheep from malnutrition and death for many from disease which gains a foothold when resistance is low. The New England district with its long hard winter is a typical example. Here the sheep go steadily downhill during the winter and when spring comes they are so low in condition that they cannot withstand even moderate infestations of Haemonchus and many die at a time when they should be taking full advantage of the fresh growth. On the Central and Southern Tablelands the picture differs somewhat, especially where pasture improvement has been carried out, but even here sheep lose condition in the winter. On the slopes and plains the seasonal deficiency is often a summer one, but still brings its troubles.
Quite often the owner is convinced that his flock is in excellent condition and is puzzled as to why deaths are occurring. On investigation the cause of death is found to be a condition associated with a falling plane of nutrition, such as Toxaemia of Pregnancy, chronic copper poisoning or heliotrope poisoning. The answer, of course, is supplementary feeding, but it is difficult to assure the owner that this is so when he has seen large deposits of body fat at the postmortem. A typical example of this occurred about Christmas, 1951, in this District. The farmer in question lost 26 crossbred ewes from chronic copper poisoning. The sheep were very fat and when it was stated that they should be fed a supplement, the owner was amazed. He had conserved fodder on hand in the form of good quality hay, but, to quote him, "was keeping it for a drought", and demurred about feeding while the sheep were fat. He eventually was convinced that the supplementary feeding was the only answer to his problem and by so doing he prevented further losses.
The annual wastage, both of ewes and potential lambs, as a result of Toxaemia of Pregnancy is high but could be reduced substantial by feeding a supplement. Where lambing occurs in July and August there is a wastage due to difficult lambing which, on the Tablelands, may be the result, in part, of Vitamin A deficiency due to lack of green feed throughout the greater part of the gestation period. Here again, feeding would help minimise losses. After 15 years experience it is considered that all pregnant ewes, in any part of the State whatsoever, would benefit by a supplement at least during the last two months of their pregnancy.
In the case of internal parasitism, if the bulk of the money and time spent in drenching sheep were spent in feeding them, the results would be more satisfactory. The old saw, "Prevention is better than cure", however hackneyed, still holds good in these cases.
An example of the value of supplementary feeding, and worth quoting, was seen in the Blayney district. The property consisted of 650 acres, of which about 100 acres were used for cropping, producing potatoes, peas and oats. The remaining 550 acres had been largely pasture-improved and carried 1,100 breeding ewes, crossbreds, and in addition for about 4 months of each year up to 1,200 lambs. Supplementary feed, either good quality oaten chaff in self-feeders or lucerne hay in shelters, was available all the year round. The feeders were on runners and could be moved readily from paddock to paddock. The property was under observation for four years and in that time Toxaemia of Pregnancy was unknown. The ewes were inoculated for Entero-toxaemia annually; but not the lambs, and yet losses of lambs from lambing to marking were never greater than 0.5%, and overall losses not greater than 1.0%. Losses of ewes was 1.0% or lower. The lambs always thrived and were very even, all being marketable from 3 months on and always bringing top prices. Worms gave no trouble and drenching was minimal. The results were so striking that the amount of fodder used per annum was investigated and found to be from 20 to 22 tons, mostly produced on the property. Based on producion costs at the time, the per capita cost was 7d. At the present time the cost is probably about 1/6 per head, which is still profitable by reason of the greater overall return from lambs, culled ewes and wool, and the greatly reduced production losses.
It was noticeable that generally the ewes all visited the feeders at least once a day, taking perhaps only one mouthful and leaving again. Intake increased in the spring, with its flush feed, and again in the winter when only dry, frost-burnt feed was available, but the average daily consumption per head throughout the year, excluding the lambs from the calculation, was 1¾ ozs. On this basis 3 tons of oaten chaff or lucerne hay would supplement 1,000 pregnant ewes for the last 60 days of their gestation. Even at current market prices of such fodder it would be profitable if it prevented losses from Toxaemia of Pregnancy.
Supplementary feeding with purchased fodder is not only undesirable but also unnecessary, as there are very few properties which have not some acres of cultivable land on which the owners could grow fodder crops, and this type of feeding comes into its own with fodder produced on the property. In addition to supplementary feeding with chaff or hay, the practice can be pursued with growing crops such as improved pasture or grazing lucerne. These can be utilised as supplementary feeds by turning the sheep on them for about 8 hours on two or three days a week, instead giving the sheep continuous grazing. Even a small stack of hay in each paddock, readily accessible to the sheep, is of value, and the prime aim, which is maintenance of a more even plane of nutrition, is closer to realisation.
There is an evergrowing demand for increased meat production and we know that the world's protein requirements are greater than the supply. There is no doubt that quite an increase could result if flock-owners ceased to be more or less haphazard and applied scientific methods of husbandry.
Unfortunately, the word "scientific" is anathema to many of them. However, if by supplementary feeding and other simple methods the production losses could be reduced to a minimum, and they could be, we would have moved several steps nearer the goal of greater production. If Australia is to maintain her present position, let alone improve it, it is essential that flockowners be stimulated, encouraged and, if need be, goaded into adopting modern methods of husbandry. How this is to be achieved presehts quite a problem. Greater publicity is one aid, but it must be presented in such a manner as to catch the eye and to be absorbed readily. At present many useful facts are published from time to time but often as obscure paragraphs easily missed by readers. A quicker dispersal of research findings, once confirmed, through all available channels is indicated, as at the moment there is too great a lag. For instance, many owners know nothing of the work done in Western Australia on the feeding of pregnant ewes with its consequent improvement in lamb quality and maturity. Any facts presented should be supported, where possible, by actual costs involved. This is particularly so with supplementary feeding, where there are no spectacular changes in the flock to catch and hold the attention. The average flock-owner only adopts practices which show an immediate and obvious return for his investment. In other words, they must be convinced as to the value of such practices by trials and demonstrations before they will use them.
James S. McLester, in "Nutrition and the Future of Man", says. "In the past, science has conferred on those people who availed themselves of the newer knowledge of infectious diseases, better health and greater average length of life. In the future, it promises to those races who will take advantage of the newer knowledge of nutrition, a larger stature, greater vigour, increased longevity and a higher level of cultural attainment. To a measurable degree, man is now master of his own destiny, where since he was subject only to the grim hand of Fate." These remarks apply equally to our flocks and herds save that although man is master of their destiny, through his lack of knowledge or failure to apply it, they are still subject to the "grim hand of Fate", as evinced by seasonal food shortages and droughts. We can and must achieve for our flocks and herds that promise of "larger stature, greater vigour and increased longevity" which is so vitally necessary if we are to improve our production. In other words, "Let's feed our sheep."