Sheep: finding alternatives to mulesing
There is a strong emphasis on sheep research at Roseworthy because sheep products are worth $5 billion annually, without multipliers, to the Australian economy.
Researchers are looking at the genes of sheep to see how they can improve efficiency and quality of lamb products. Value-added products are growing in popularity and even in the case of the standard product, it is clear that it is of a much higher quality, with less fat than the roast leg of lamb of the 1950s.
But beyond the lamb that makes its way to our tables, it is what's on the sheep's back that is making headlines around the world at the moment.
Roseworthy is leading the way in solving one of the most contentious practices in the agricultural industry today.
Mulesing is a preventative measure for flystrike, but it is a cruel practice that involves stripping skin from the area surrounding a sheep's anus, where flystrike occurs, creating an open wound that eventually heals as a wool-free scar.
Professor Phil Hynd, Roseworthy Campus Director and leader of the Sheep Genomics Program said, "The practice of mulesing is horrendous - no-one wants to do it, but it is better to subject the animal to this than flystrike, which is an infestation of the flesh by blowfly maggots. It is one of the most common diseases affecting sheep in Australia.
"Roseworthy is at the forefront of animal welfare technology in its work, finding a humane solution to flystrike. The PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaigns highlight the problems with mulesing, and quite rightly. The industry is looking for alternatives and we are working on a solution at Roseworthy right now.
"In the short term, we are conducting trials with a naturally-occurring protein that prevents growth of wool around the sheep's rear end, so the 'mulesing' occurs naturally, without blood, and there is no wound and no chance of infection."
A field trial commenced in October, testing thousands of sheep all over Australia.
"If all goes well, the treatment will be due for commercial release in 2008, which is well in time for the deadline that has been set for Mulesing to cease as a farming practice in Australia by 2010."
Beyond this intervention treatment, there is longer-term research dedicated to breeding sheep without wool around their tail region.
Research into sheep genomics, headed up by Professor Hynd, plays a pivotal role in the $30 million national Sheep Genomics Program, a joint initiative of Australian Wool Innovation and Meat and Livestock Australia. His Wool Genomics subprogram brings $4million worth of funding to Roseworthy campus. ■
Story Lisa Reid