While good old-fashioned rye grass is the only item on the menu for most New Zealand sheep, researchers have found that the animals enjoy a bit of variety in their diet.
A team at Lincoln University, in Canterbury, made the discovery after using twin-bearing pregnant sheep to test how their diet affects their lambs.
“We wouldn't eat the same food for breakfast, lunch and tea - we'd get pretty sick and tired of eating it - and so we're looking at providing our animals different choices through time,” Lincoln University PhD student Konagh Garrett said.
One sheep was put on the typical rye grass, while the other was given a variety of feeds, including chicory, plantain, red clover and lucerne.
When the twins are born, one is bottle-raised, while the other stays on the paddock.
“Grasses will have different levels of protein and energy, but also the different secondary compounds can provide medicines, so they can be anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, and provide antioxidants as well,” Lincoln University PhD student Matt Beck said.
The impact was huge, with those able to choose their diet seeing a 100 per cent increase in growth, excreted less nitrogen into the environment and had an improved well-being.
Pablo Gregorini, a professor of Livestock Production at Lincoln University, said a “massive amount of farmers” have been “quite keen” to start applying the new methods and “rethink what we are doing”.
The team also found they could encourage lambs to try new feed, including common weeds, by feeding it to the mother.
The taste passed on both during pregnancy and later in early life through milk, which Garrett called "really a win-win-win".
"We've got reduced environmental impact on the diverse diets and improved performance,” she said.