Research Option 1

As I’m reading Fred Provenza’s Nourishment I’m thinking about potential research (also because I kind of always am. I love coming up with and finding new questions to ask, and thinking about how we’d go about answering them).

One really interesting question that’s kept coming up is how naive animals adapt when moved to new landscapes, specifically how they adjust to new forages, water, and conditions. A friend recently brought home some 400 sheep that will be grazing first in Cuyama Valley (desert), then moving out towards the coast to graze. The forages in each will be markedly different: the Cuyama site is dominated by sage brush and other woody perennials, while the coastal sites are dominated by annual (nonnative, mostly) grasses and forbs. I’m curious about things like the following:

  • How is the rumen microbiome shifting as they move from one site to the next? How long does it take for persistent changes to occur (and how would we define ‘persistent’?) and how long do they persist after leaving?
  • How does dietary choice reflect the availability of forages in the environment? In part this is a “what are their favourites” but more, it’s a question of what are they taking small amounts of, periodically, and why? Are they medicinal, simply sampling — and then, are they sampling, forgetting, and trying again; or choosing a particular plant occasionally in response to some other stimulus, such as weather, consumption of another plant or material, or based on the age of the plant, e.g. sampling more as the plant ages and phytochemicals decrease in the tissue, and it becomes more palatable?
  • How do individuals within the group influence the behaviour of others? How quickly do changes spread through a group when novel individuals are introduced? I’m sure these in particular are questions that Provenza’s already tackled, so more reading is (as ever) needed.
  • Does microbiome shift depend on animal age? Do lambs shift more quickly — and if so, why? Higher ratio of plant material or microbial biomass ingested:body weight, more responsive physiology, behaviour (e.g. coprophagy?) and fewer pre-existing bacteria are all possible avenues to investigate. Or do ewes? One could surmise ewes would be more adaptive and tolerant of changing conditions, so be physiologically predisposed to ‘allow’ new bacterial populations to take up residency.

I think that some of these questions would be intriguing, novel and possible to tackle with some creative experimental design and close following of the flocks as they move through various locations. It would require…

  • baseline and ongoing dung collection (forage analysis, faecal microbiome)
  • on-the-ground forage analysis (more than transects; finer-level description of available plants and their relative abundances)
  • classification of animals into age groups
  • careful tracking of animals’ origins to ensure consistent baselines
  • some way of quantifying the relative amounts of different forages ingested

Well that was fun. In under 15 minutes I described another potential PhD project that I could tackle. There’s clearly no shortage of good ideas to pursue, and plenty of material to work from. This is one of the things about regenerative agriculture that I’m really excited about: the frontiers of possibility for weaving together animal nutrition, ecology, behaviour, socioeconomics, soil science, hydrology, botany, traditional ecological knowledge, and who knows what else are wide open; interest is high; and the need is great. It’s an exciting time, indeed.

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