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Part III: Clean, green and ethical farming


 
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Professor Graeme Martin, Leader of the Future Farm 2050 Project at the University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture, outlines some the benefits in running clean, green and ethical livestock.

Future Farm 2050 lies south-east of Perth and a third of its profit is derived from livestock, in this case 5,000 sheep. The project takes a modern view of where the livestock industry should be going and aims to be 'clean, green and ethical' while running a profitable farm driven by science. ‘Clean' means that the farm reduces its dependency on chemicals, antibiotics and the like; ‘green' reminds us that grazing ruminants have a greenhouse gas footprint to consider; ‘ethical' reminds us that animal welfare is important.

Grazing animals like sheep, cattle and goats can eat grass (which humans can’t) and produce human-edible foods like meat and milk. Grazing animals can graze in places where crops can’t be grown, such as hilly areas, mountain areas and semi-arid areas, yet around the world a third of human-edible food is fed to livestock. It is that third which is needed to feed the increase in human population by 2050. 


 
Ecosystem restoration six months

 

One ethical consideration for sheep is the neo-natal survival of newborn lambs. Many die every year within the first few days of birth – an economic, genetic and resource loss. Another ethical consideration is fly strike, especially in wet winter areas. Fly strike is a horrible thing to deal with and the use of mulesing to prevent it is also horrible. 

Livestock animals evolved a long time before humans domesticated them and had a degree of resistance to diseases like fly strike and gastrointestinal worms. The development of drugs and treatments like mulesing stopped natural selection for genes that confer that resistance. We need to reverse that process and we are now beginning to breed animals that are resistant to worms. This will mean less diarrhoea (which attracts the flies). We are also breeding resistance to the formation of dags so we can avoid mulesing, drugs and chemicals.

Dr Johann Greeff, a geneticist, has bred these resistant flocks of sheep. The animals are almost completely resistant to worms apart from the residual few which all animals will have (including us). Some sheep, however, have become highly sensitive to those residual worms and still get diarrhoea, a problem that we will overcome by investigating the immune system. 


 

Tree planting team July 2015 Greening Australia


 

Future Farm was also keen to find foraging plants that reduced methane emissions. Dr Phil Vercoe and Dr Dean Revell screened 150-180 native plants from across Australia and found a dozen that reduced methane emissions when grazed by sheep. This was narrowed to 3-4 superstars, one being Eremophila glabra or 'tar bush'. When fed as part of a sheep diet, the plant can reduce methane emissions by 20-50%. Although it doesn’t taste very nice (sheep prefer grass and clover), the sheep continues to eat it, especially during summer and autumn, when pastures are less digestible and have very poor nutritional value. In this situation, the sheep maintained weight instead of losing it. Eremophila is deep rooted and drought resistant so it can be used to lower the water table if there is a salinity problem. It also helps the sheep to combat worms!  

On Future Farm, the Eremophila produced a greening effect in places where crops couldn’t grow. As natives they attracted birds, insects and reptiles, combining restoration of landscape and biodiversity with improved profits, according to economic analysis of shrub-based systems.

There are still issues which a modern country with good societal values needs to take on board. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has a focus against mulesing and have campaigned against the wool industry in Australia and against Australian wool products in the USA. The shipping of live animals is also under massive social pressure.  Some of the clean, green ethical focus of Future Farm is driven by such campaigns.

It would be nice if Australia could announce it doesn’t do mulesing anymore. You could say it is a field goal of Future Farm.  


 
Ecosystem restoration digging to measure soil carbon

 

Proffessor Graeme Martin was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent.
Future Farm 2050 Project images from Proffessor Martin.
Summary text by Victor Barry, February 2017. 


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Part II: restoring biodiversity in sustainable farming

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