Ten years ago Nan Bray was Chief of CSIRO’s Marine Research Division in Hobart. She has since branched out’ into superfine wool, running 1600 Saxon Merinos in Tassy’s Southern Midlands. Her particular – radical? – method of wool production has quality up and costs down.
Following from Nan’s close observation of a sick ‘sheep called Alice’ her method of wool production now combines ‘old fashioned shepherding skills, ground-breaking research from the US and the knowledge and wisdom of an 87-year-old wool industry legend’, Davey Carnes who is also a neighbour – and who didn’t believe Nan could grow superfine wool.
The sick sheep Alice was unable to stand. As she was in a sling Nan used to take her out to a paddock near the house to feed…and there were a lot of weeds there! Nan says:
“I started watching and she [Alice] was eating in the same order, so there was chicory, plantain – which is another exotic plant that works for intestinal parasites – lucerne, clover and a couple of kinds of grass. Chicory, plantain, lucerne, clover, get to the grass she’d look up at me, ‘Can we move now?’ And then it dawned on me she was very specific about which plant.”
Alice’s eating pattern tied in with ground-breaking work done in the US by Professor Fred Provenza about the link between plant and animal behaviour. Nan says:
“The animals are trying to balance their diets and the plants are trying to not be eaten to death. And so what the plants have developed in their ecological system is a whole set of – a range of defences, most of which are chemical. Some of them are mechanical like spines and things, but mostly they’re chemical compounds that the plant manufactures, that when an animal eats too much of it, it makes them nauseous. So then they stop eating that plant and move to another plant…[that plant] gets a chance to regenerate.
I learnt from Alice that sheep are incredibly specific about what they eat. They know what they want to eat, that a diversity is really important to them, that grass is the last choice in the forage list. I always just thought she ate grass, you know – what do you think.
And then from Fred’s research, what I learned was why. Why are those broad-leaf plants so important in, for sheep nutrition – nutrition generally. And then that allowed me to start changing some other things.”
Nan stopped fighting weeds. Alice taught her they’re a medicine chest that sheep will use when they need – what Fred Provenza calls nutritional wisdom.
Nan’s sheep haven’t been drenched for years, a big expense. When they look as if they’re not right, Nan puts them in ‘the chicory patches’. They eat the chicory and…no worm.
The weeds or pharmacy are out there in the paddock but farmers have to help the sheep learn.
Nan now does not force weaning. Lambs stay stay with their mothers who teach them what to eat.
AND what about long tails and crutching?
The tails are kept long – an animal welfare issue – and Nan finds that lambs with tails grow faster and weigh more and because of their varied diet they don’t get daggy and at risk of flystrike.
Shocked shearers are paid more.