Fetal programming of sheep for production on saltbush

Megan Chadwick

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

    116 Downloads (Pure)


    [Truncated abstract] Saltbush is one of the few types of forage that will grow on salt affected land but, sheep struggle to maintain weight when grazing saltbush mainly because of its high salt content. Therefore, a strategy to improve salt tolerance of sheep would be beneficial to the profitable use of revegetated saline land. This could be done by manipulating the dietary salt load of pregnant or lactating ewes which could 'program', or permanently alter the physiology of their offspring to allow them to cope better with a high-salt diet as adults. When rat dams consume a high amount of salt during pregnancy, the salt balance mechanisms of their offspring are 'programmed' due to suppression of the offspring's renin-angiotensin system in early development. If this occurs in offspring from ewes grazing saltbush, beneficial adaptations may be programmed in these offspring which could allow them to better cope with the high-salt content of saltbush. I tested the general hypothesis that offspring born to ewes that consumed a high-salt or saltbush diet from mid-pregnancy to early lactation would have an increased capacity to cope with salt that would allow them gain weight when grazing saltbush in later life. To test this hypothesis, I pair-fed ewes either a high-salt diet (14% NaCl) or control diet (2% NaCl) in an animal house from day 60 of gestation until day 21 of lactation. During the same period, I also conducted a field experiment where ewes grazed on saltbush (supplemented with barley) or on pasture (supplemented with lupins). ... This led to the high-salt offspring retaining more salt than control animals. In contrast, the renin activity of saltbush was consistently lower than pasture offspring which allowed them to excrete salt more rapidly. In experiment three, the saltbush offspring gained tissue weight after grazing saltbush for 8 weeks, whereas the offspring in the other three treatments lost weight. High-salt and saltbush offspring also had higher greasy fleece weights at 22 months of age than their respective control groups. Feeding saltbush to ewes from mid-pregnancy to early lactation induces physiological adaptations in their offspring that allow them to cope better with salt and gain weight when grazing saltbush as adults, supporting my hypothesis. However, contrary to expectations, the high-salt offspring did not gain weight when grazing saltbush because their physiological adaptations, such as salt retention, did not allow them to cope better with a salt load. The reason that saltbush offspring showed different adaptations to highsalt offspring is likely to be because saltbush contains not only NaCl but also high amounts of other minerals such as potassium, and other plant compounds, which may influence the adaptive responses of the offspring. This research has direct implications for farmers because it shows they could utilize otherwise unproductive saltland by grazing pregnant ewes on saltbush to 'program' their offspring to gain weight when they graze saltbush later in life.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2009


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