Dr Lydia Cranston amongst the new herb and legume mix.

New pasture mix boosts sheep growth


Nutritionists say it is important for us to eat a mix of vegetables – and now research from Massey University suggests variety is not only good for sheep but a new pasture mix will cope better in droughts and provide more food.

New Zealand farmers have traditionally used ryegrass and clover as a pasture mix, or pure chicory, but as the climate changes and droughts become more common and severe, alternative grass varieties need to be considered, agronomist Dr Lydia Cranston says.

Dr Cranston, who graduated this week with a PhD in plant science, studied at Massey’s International Sheep Research Centre. She investigated a new a herb and legume mix containing chicory, plantain, red clover, and white clover, and found that in a glasshouse environment, chicory and plantain withstand dry conditions better than ryegrass and clover.

Better tolerance to dry conditions means that pasture can continue to grow through the drier summer months, which means a longer season of grazing, bigger animals, and ultimately more profit for the farmer. Chicory is particularly tolerant because of its extensive tap-root, which can grow deeper and access deeper water sources.

In a separate study, members of the research team Dr Cranston was part of found that including high-quality plants like chicory results in sheep putting on more weight. This is because the sheep get more energy out of the feed they eat, and the herbs and legumes break down faster in the sheep's rumen, meaning they can eat more.

“In New Zealand we’re so reliant on ryegrass and white clover as our pasture,” Dr Cranston says.

“Thinking into the future, we’ve got to have alternative options and definitely the results of my study show that both chicory and plantain are good at displaying drought tolerance and continuing to grow under those dry conditions. When you combine that with my colleagues' findings that that the food combination is better for growth, the benefits are really compelling."

Farmers from across New Zealand, apart from the colder parts of the South Island, will potentially be able to reap the benefits of the mix, as “it’s pretty suitable to a range of places. Anywhere that potentially has a dry summer but doesn't get too cold in winter."

Dr Cranston is continuing her research as a postdoctoral fellow in the dairy group of Massey University. She is one of 37 doctoral candidates who graduated in Palmerston North today. Twenty of those are from the science disciplines, with projects ranging from carrier vehicles for bowel cancer drugs, to measuring pain sensitivity of cats using a laser stimulus, to selecting and modeling quality criteria for healthcare information.

Professional Director and University Council member Dr Helen Anderson spoke at the ceremony, offering the following words of advice for the science graduands: “Your science degree will take you so far – but you have to do the rest and stretch your own boundaries.”

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