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24 June 2024 6 min read

Key points

  • From tasting nutritious novel shrubs and methane-busting seaweed to helping develop life-saving vaccines, our research sheep contribute to Australia’s $7 billion industry.
  • To help with our work in sheep, we maintain research flocks at several of our livestock research stations.
  • Advancements in animal welfare include a flystrike vaccine and selective breeding for better productivity traits in Merino sheep.

There’s an old saying, ‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back’. It means sheep, with their valuable wool and meat, are a major economic contributor for our country. In fact, sheep production contributes over $7 billion annually to Australia’s economy.

Our expertise and innovations help farmers produce healthy and happy sheep in sustainable farming systems.

Our woolly friends

Animal behaviour and welfare researchers, Dana Campbell and Hamideh Keshavarzi, and a friend, on our Armidale farm in NSW

To help with our work in sheep, we maintain research flocks at several of our livestock research stations. 

One flock is at Armidale on Anaiwan Country, in the Northern Tablelands region of NSW. Another is at Boorowa on the central slopes of NSW on Wiradjuri Country.

In Western Australia, we have a spectroscopy, nutrition and methane emissions reduction facility located near Perth on the traditional lands of the Whadjuk Noongar people. We also partner with farmers on research across the state. 

Imagine for a moment you’re a CSIRO research sheep. What might your day look like? Here are some of the ways you could be contributing to research outcomes for industry. 

Sheep and cattle nutrition: saltbush anyone?

WA’s Matt Wilmot and Hayley Norman talking shrubs with sheep, Cheeky and Tank

You might be one of our taste-testers. Our sheep provide us with valuable consumer advice regarding their preferences and the nutritional value of novel plants such as native shrubs and new legumes that are drought-hardy and suitable for saline land. We then find ways to incorporate them into productive and sustainable farming systems. Our partners on this work include Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Murdoch University

One novel forage species we developed at our sheep facility in the west is Anameka saltbush. Anameka saltbush can improve farm profitability, provide nutrients that are lacking in diets and reduce the impact of drought and salinity.

We can use our work in sheep nutrition to complement our cattle nutrition and methane research. Sheep and cattle are both ruminants so digest feeds similarly. They have four stomachs, which helps them turn very poor-quality feed sources into meat, wool and milk. But as sheep are much smaller, we can use less forage or supplement to conduct a trial. This keeps costs down and allows testing much sooner in a research program. 

When we were developing Anameka saltbush, for example, it involved hand-picking and drying three tonnes of leaves from farms across Australia. This would have been 30 tonnes if we’d used cattle!

Other feeds you could be nibbling on as a CSIRO sheep could be Bartolo bladder clover, dual-purpose crops or forage brassicas.

How sheep burps contribute to methane emissions

You could also be chowing down on seaweed.

Sheep burps account for approximately 7.5 percent of Australia’s methane emissions. One way we’re tackling this is by developing the native seaweed, Asparagopsis, into a livestock feed supplement, Future Feed. Our sheep in Perth demonstrated that Future Feed significantly reduces ruminant methane emissions. Commercial sale and supply of Asparagopsis to cattle producers began in 2022. 

We also conduct trials in WA and NSW on a range of other supplements that help reduce methane emissions from livestock. 

But what methane reduction strategies might work better in particular farming areas and how much do they cost? In new research that uses mathematical economics, we’re identifying livestock methane emission hot spot areas and what reduction strategies could provide the biggest bang for our buck.

Are you the best Merino for your farm?

How do we look? Our Merino ewes on show at the final Merino Lifetime Productivity field day, May 2024. Image supplied

More than 1200 ewes at our Armidale site have been part of a project assessing Merino mums and how they can best achieve productivity outcomes for Aussie farmers.

Producers would like to know whether their sheep are the most appropriate for their production system and environment. And whether they’re good lambers, grow great wool and are disease resistant, for example.

Information on such quality traits, especially across diverse environments and Merino types, is difficult and costly to gather and takes a long-term coordinated effort.

Enter the eight-year Merino Lifetime Productivity project. It assessed sheep from five different sites across the country and created a huge amount of data that will help the industry for a long time to come. The project was co-funded by CSIRO, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and the Australian Merino Sire Evaluation Association. 

Being Fit to Lamb

Juggling twins at Armidale NSW with mum looking on

Our Merino Lifetime Productivity ewes at Armidale have recently become fitness trendsetters. They have been wearing activity trackers in the project ‘Fit to Lamb’, in collaboration with university research partners. Activity is one dimension of temperament, and temperament in livestock is known to be linked to productivity. Just like humans, animals who move a lot burn more calories and gain weight more slowly! 

This leads on from previous work at Armidale on ease of lambing in Merino ewes, where we identified the date of lambing through movement sensors. Prolonged birth events are a major risk factor for the wellbeing of ewe and lamb, and our collaborative research aims to develop tools to improve lambing outcomes across Australia.

Healthier, happier, more productive sheep

Our flystrike vaccine could help sheep live healthier, happier and more productive lives

The Australian wool and sheep meat industries face lost production costs in excess of $320 million per year from flystrike by the blowfly, Lucilia cuprina. Flystrike and the contentious control measure, mulesing, represent significant welfare issues. The industry is actively looking for additional alternatives and effective welfare-friendly measures to combat flystrike.

With industry partner Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), we’re striking back at flystrike by developing a vaccine to help sheep combat this parasite. We hope it’ll save production losses and help sheep live healthier, happier and more productive lives.

Selective breeding to reduce the susceptibility of sheep to breech flystrike is a complementary approach. We've developed industry best practice guidelines for incorporating breech strike resistance into Merino breeding programs. Stud breeders and buyers of rams are now using the guidelines to select for flystrike resistant animals.

Pain relief solutions for sheep

In conjunction with Troy Laboratories and MLA, we've developed an interim pain relief solution for mulesing, castration and tail docking. The product, Butec OTM, is now available at produce stores. It’s helping overcome the welfare concerns of pain associated with husbandry procedures until alternative practices are completely integrated into the sheep industry.

Butec OTM is absorbed through the lining of the mouth. Our research showed that it not only relieves pain in lambs, it also improves their overall welfare, reducing lamb losses. It’s an effective pain relief solution for cattle, too.

In other pain relief technology for sheep, we developed Numnuts® with 4C Design, MLA and AWI. Numnuts® is a targeted local anaesthetic delivery system farmers can use when tail docking and castrating their lambs. It became commercially available to producers in Australia in 2019, New Zealand in 2021 and is now available in the UK.

Not a baa-d future for sheep research

Back in 2014, we led the international research team that first sequenced the sheep genome. With this resource and new digital tools like artificial intelligence, the types of livestock research we can do has become more powerful. We can research selective breeding and improved flock genetics, for example, with observational studies, statistical techniques and machine learning.

Even with new powerful computational capability like this, we still need actual sheep for our research. Our woolly friends are vital for us to continue helping this important industry.

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