Ill thrift is costly for the cattle industry.For beef producers in southern Australia, ill-thrift – a condition where cattle under-perform despite adequate quantity and quality of feed on offer – is a silent thief.
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A recent MLA-funded study in Tasmania, conducted by Macquarie Franklin, has found it robs the state’s producers of up to 3300 tonnes of beef production a year, or almost $11 million in lost income.

Macquarie Franklin researcher Basil Doonan and his team reviewed the available literature on the topic and surveyed Tasmanian producers on their experiences and observations.

“Ill-thrift is a recognised phenomenon that affects sheep and cattle in temperate regions around the world,” he said.

“It appears the causes are multiple but we have narrowed down three key factors clearly linked with ill-thrift: mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi), parasites and pasture quality.”

Basil said ill-thrift was almost impossible to identify without the regular weighing of stock because the key symptom – insufficient weight gain – is shared by other common conditions.

How prevalent is it? The researchers found that 37% of the surveyed farms reported under-performance in cattle relative to feed on offer, with 12% of respondents saying they were unsure if they had a problem.

Those reporting underperformance based their assessment on one or more factors including: the unwell appearance of their cattle (used by 58% of producers), weighing cattle (43%), condition scoring (29%) and perceived low feed conversion (24%).

Failure to thrive was most commonly seen in autumn, closely followed by winter.

Mycotoxins – why are they important? Basil said the research showed mycotoxins, produced by fungi in many pasture and cereal species, could be costing Tasmanian producers more than they realise.

“Mycotoxins can occur in both pasture and fodder crops and are secondary chemicals produced by a wide range of fungi that have toxic effects on animals, for example ryegrass staggers,” he said.

Basil said ryegrass, the most dominant pasture species used by Tasmanian producers for finishing stock, hosted a number of fungi and mycotoxins.

“Ryegrass staggers, photosensitisation and ill-thrift are all related to elevated levels of mycotoxins on pasture, particularly older, under-utilised pastures with more fallen dry feed,” he said.

Basil said animals suffering from ill-thrift responded to improved grazing management and symptoms could be relieved by changing feed.

The project found production losses attributed to ill-thrift could be reduced if producers improved their control of parasites and adopted grazing strategies that compensated for the significant decline in ryegrass feed value during autumn.

Basil said more research was required before practical solutions to ill-thrift could be recommended.

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