Using sheep to graze and control weeds is a textbook trick used by farmers for centuries, but it comes unstuck when sheep get a taste for the crop itself, and if the crop just happens to be part of Tasmania’s premier wine industry it can be a very costly mistake.
However, work on animal behaviour by Utah State University’s Professor Fred Provenza and his team could solve this problem, while reducing costly outlays on labour, fuel and herbicides.
Professor Provenza visited southern Tasmania recently, giving a public lecture and delivering a workshop on the BEHAVE program – Behavioural Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem management.
The BEHAVE research and outreach program explores the principles of animal behaviour – by understanding how animals learn we can use their natural behaviours to manage weeds, enhance biodiversity, improve feeding systems, protect riparian areas and much more.
“I used to teach an animal behaviour course in the US and one year we had a group of wine growers from California,” he told farmers and students during a field day in April at the Jansz-Parish vineyard in Penna, southern Tasmania.
“They really wanted to raise sheep organically, but didn’t want the sheep eating their vines. We were able to show them how they could train an animal up in just a matter of days to avoid eating just about anything, and they really ran with this stuff.”
The training methods are simple and have proved highly effective around the world, including in Italy and Argentina.
The BEHAVE research shows that animals start learning what to eat long before they leave their mother’s womb.
“The foetal taste system is fully functional during the last trimester of gestation,” says Professor Provenza. “So they’ve already experienced whatever flavours are in mum’s stomach before they come out of the womb.”
Once born the learning curve continues, with young animals ingesting new tastes through their mother’s milk, watching what mother eats, social interactions with other animals, and feedback signals that tell them which plants they need to eat to get the balance of nutrients and toxins their bodies need.
David Sanderson from Wine Tasmania says he has always favoured using stock in vineyards to keep vegetation under control, but that up until now it has not been possible to do this all year round.
“A growing number of traditional grazing and mixed-enterprise farms in Tasmania are establishing vineyards,” he says. “And so growers often let sheep in once all the fruit has been picked from the vines, but Fred’s methods could take this to the next level by letting growers keep sheep in their vineyards all year round.
“If you could keep sheep in your vineyard during spring they could be used to control that growth rather than the vigneron having to rely on herbicides and labour-intensive slashing. The methods can also be applied to other land management areas, using grazing as a tool to reduce use of expensive machinery, fossil fuels and toxic herbicides.”
The grazing management field day with Professor Fred Provenza was organised by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, NRM South and SPROUT Tasmania.
The professor was in Tasmania on a UTAS visiting scholar award. You can download videos, fact sheets and other resources about the
animal behaviour research from behave.net