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Intensive Farming Systems: Are they a viable option for Australian sheep and goat production?

Sarah Collins - Sunday, July 07, 2013

I have just returned from a short period of work experience in a large piggery. Every week without fail over 400 tiny, squealing piglets are brought into the world and these very quickly transform into mischievous weaners. Every step of the production process is precisely managed to ensure optimal growth and performance. In 20 weeks, the little piglets have developed into a marketable animal and the methods are so finely tuned that the weight difference between pigs in the group is within 2kgs. Everything works like clockwork. There are a certain amount of days allocated to every aspect; pregnancy, lactation, re-mating, growth, even birthing is induced to fit in with this ‘calendar’ of events.

And it got me thinking…

Is a similar intensive farming system a viable option for sheep and goat production? I’m not suggesting that I have a suitable answer, but it does get the mind going. I’m not referring to intensive feedlot-type situations, which do generate very good results in finishing off animals for market; I am propositioning a fully controlled, birth-to-market system.

There are a few problems with using such a system for sheep and goats. Most importantly, the species has significant upper limits in terms of feed conversion efficiency and production ability. Sheep and goats are ruminants, meaning they have a compartmentalised ‘stomach’ which acts similar to a fermentation vat. The rumen is inhabited by microbial organisms which facilitate the breakdown of cellulose fibres such as grass and hay. In comparison to acidic stomachs, this fermentation is a lengthy process and does not always fully utilise the available energy in the feed. On the other hand, the pig is a mono-gastric animal; meaning that, like humans, it only has one acidic stomach. This form of digestion is a faster process and allows the animal to gain optimal energy and nutrients from its feed. Therefore, a sheep or goat will need to be fed more feed, in comparison to a pig, to achieve the same result. This makes the production process much more costly and less viable.

Moreover, the ewe or doe is not designed to birth or raise a large litter of young. During my week at the piggery, very little surprise was felt over a sow that birthed 21 live piglets. I personally have never known a doe to have more than 5 kids at once, and even then she was not able to raise them all successfully. It is my belief that a doe or ewe is best suited to the raising of one or two kids. With this in mind, it becomes obvious that, in terms of productivity, the sheep and goat can never compete with the pig.

However, sheep and goat farmers can make significant improvements in both productivity and product quality with selective breeding programs, well-developed feeding strategies, and focused attention on health and husbandry.

Having explored the afore mentioned factors, it is my opinion that, at this point in time, an intensive system for sheep and goat production is not viable. However, with the continued developments in both animal genetics and feed sciences, this proposition may become a more attractive option in the future.

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