FORAGE shrub trials set up on the Eyre Peninsula in 2008 have shown good early results as a feed-gap filler from late summer to early autumn. And with the plant's ability to persist and survive proven through the trials, the next stage will be to look at their effect on livestock weight gain and condition. The trials are part of the Future Farm Industries CRC Enrich project. EP Natural Resources Management Board landcare and sustainable farming systems officer Neil Ackland says the main aim of the project when it was originally set up at Cowell farmer Scott Williams' property in 2008 was to get better use from low-production soils. The following year the trials were expanded to Streaky Bay and Minnipa, to give a greater spread of soils and areas. "The soils we targetted at Cowell were producing very low yields when cropped," Neil said. "In a good year the yields weren't too bad, but in poorer years they wouldn't produce anything at all, leaving little or no livestock feed source. "These areas are largely affected by magnesia patches, particularly in drier seasons and tended to salt up. So we looked at alternative grazing systems with the forage shrubs." Another problem with these types of soils was that when sheep were kept in the paddocks, they tended to out completely bare-out the area, causing substantial erosion problems. "The sheep seemed to always camp on sand rises and low production areas faster than other areas," Neil said. Originally, 15 different shrubs were trialled at Cowell, to look at their suitability to the area. They were planted on a 1-hectare plot. "They were mainly local native shrubs (saltbushes) with a few different species in there," Neil said. "Plant selection was based on the results from Enrich's trial site at Monarto, where 80-odd different species have been trialled." Working with SARDI research scientist Dr Jason Emms, Mr Ackland selected the 15 plants they believed most-suited to the area of the eastern EP. Some shrubs were ruled-out from further trials. "We had one Mediterranean shrub Medicargo strasseri or tree lucerne, which the sheep absolutely loved, but it wasn't really productive," he said. "Also, the initial plantings didn't survive that well." The trials have been expanded to 5ha and four shrubs are now being concentrated on. "From the first trial we just looked at what was doing the best at the time and went from there," Neil said. "We selected four shrubs and sowed them out in blocks. "From this larger site, we'll be able to do different grazing regimes, grazing them either as a monoculture or of a mix using electric fencing." The four shrubs chosen for their early potential were: * Eyres Green Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) "This shrub grows well in saline areas," Neil Ackland said. "It's pretty hardy and fairly bulky. Sheep can take a little while to get used to eating it, but once they get a taste it becomes more palatable." * Silver Saltbush (Atriplex rhagodioides) "This was probably the stand-out as far as the best growing shrub and for having the most bulk," he said. "But, it is not quite as palatable as other varieties." * Ruby Saltbush (Enchylaena Tomentosa) "This variety seems to be one that persists fairly well and it is one that is quite common to the area," he said. "As far as grazing, it's probably less palatable than Old Man Saltbush but it seems to persist well and regenerates from seed fairly prolifically." * Seaberry Saltbush (Rhagodia Candolleana) "This was another one that stood out because it seemed to grow well," he said. "The sheep do seem to like eating it." Neil says the plots are grazed once a year and sheep grazed the shrubs "pretty much back to sticks". The plots will be grazed again in autumn. "The shrubs were grazed very hard and that's something we need to keep an eye on, how far we can push them," he said. With the forage shrubs, ryegrass and medics were sown in the inter-rows. "In the first year we had sheep in there they completely bared-out the inter-rows before they even touched the shrubs, so in the first year we had to use supplementary feed," he said. "But last year we didn't have to put any supplementary feed in with them because all the ryegrass and medic regenerated so well." This mixture has allowed the sheep to be run at very high stocking rates, up to 120 dry sheep equivalent/ha. Sheep were kept in the plots at that rate for up to 14 days for each plot. Neil says it is important to have different plants in the inter-row, to provide sheep with a balanced diet. "Sheep can't eat only shrubs, which are quite high in salt, and while they're high in protein they're low in energy," he said. "We have noticed a change in the eating preferences of the sheep. As they've got used to saltbush they've grazed the paddocks a lot more evenly and don't seem to bare-out the inter-rows as much." *Full report in Stock Journal, January 19 issue, 2012.