Study unearths a major ag connection

Study unearths a major ag connection

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Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development livestock research scientist Claire Payne at the Katanning research facility with some of the sheep from the Genetic Resource Flock that provides data to inform Australian Sheep Breeding Values and which she now manages.

Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development livestock research scientist Claire Payne at the Katanning research facility with some of the sheep from the Genetic Resource Flock that provides data to inform Australian Sheep Breeding Values and which she now manages.

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"I guess what I'm doing now was my dream job & what I was working towards when it popped up."

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GROWING up in Perth, livestock research scientist Claire Payne, 28, was unaware she had a patriarchal connection to the local meat industry and its supply chain.

It was only once her bachelor of animal science studies at Murdoch University began and competing in the Australian Intercollegiate Meat Judging program took her into the meat industry, as an extension of her studies, the connection was pointed out to her.

Her grandfather John Payne senior had been manager for Clover Meats, one the State's premier meat processors and exporters in its day, with an abattoir at Waroona that was one of the largest processing facilities in WA.

"I did intercollegiate meat judging (judging whole carcases and individual cuts for yield and quality,) at uni and that opened the door to meat science," said Ms Payne recently at the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) Katanning research facility.

She has worked for DPIRD for the past 18 months in her "dream job" as livestock research scientist and recently took over management from a colleague on maternity leave of the Genetic Resource Flock (GRF) - 600 Merino ewes, 150 Border Leicester first cross ewes and 360 Dorpers.

The GRF is the nation's largest genetic research flock, funded by Meat & Livestock Australia.

The ewes are mated by artificial insemination with a variety of commercial sires and they and their lambs undergo extensive monitoring, measuring and assessment for a range of variables, like carcase traits, birth weights, mothering skills and growth rates - information difficult or impossible to obtain accurately on farm.

All data collected goes to Sheep Genetics to inform Australian Sheep Breeding Values.

Always a young gun, as a university student Ms Payne was selected for the Australian meat judging team to visit the United States.

"I did a three-week agriculture and meat science tour (in 2012) and competed in collegiate meat judging over there," she said.

"The judging itself was interesting because you get to know what an animal looks like without its hide on and become familiar with the end product and what consumers are looking for.

"So when I came back to do my honours, it was a meat science project with the Murdoch meat science team.

"It was when I was getting into meat my dad and aunties told me my granddad, John Payne, was a butcher and he used to run an abattoir.

"Up until then I didn't know much about him - he died when I was about 14.

"He was a rabbit trapper, then a butcher, then he ran Clover Meats.

"He also used to run the old abattoir in Geraldton - they've got his (name on a) plaque there.

"I should visit one day to see it, maybe there's some sort of genetic connection to what I do."

Apart from the US, Ms Payne has also visited China, leading a Murdoch University tour for third-year animal science students in 2019.

"Ag over there is so different, so confronting and so eye-opening - the tour was brilliant," Ms Payne said.

"We went to a couple of sheep farms and cattle farms - everything is indoors, it's intensive farming, they don't have a pasture-based system like us because they don't have the arable land.

"Their dairy industry was very sophisticated and we went to a big organic vegetable farm where it's all indoors in greenhouses so they can control the micro climate."

As a city born and raised scientist with no rural connections that she knows of - other than her grandfather - Ms Payne said she discovered her career in a roundabout way.

"In high school I didn't know anything about ag, but I loved animals and the only career path I knew of involving animals was as a veterinarian," she said.

"But I didn't have the grades out of high school, so the next best alternative was animal science.

"When I first went to uni I didn't know anything about it or what to expect, but when I started learning and went on my first sheep prac I thought 'this is definitely the path I want to be on'.

"It was quite a fast introduction to the livestock supply chain but I loved it.

"At Murdoch I had plenty of opportunities to go out onfarm and I did as much as I could to get a feel for the industry and the people, who I grew to love very quickly as they just open their arms to you.

"They're really welcoming and make agriculture a really easy industry to get into."

Along with judging meat, she became a cattle handler at the Perth Royal Agricultural Show and was a member of Angus Youth for a few years.

Ms Payne took six months off from her degree studies to work at cattle feedlots at Cataby and Karlgarin before returning to complete her honours in 2014.

Her first job after obtaining her degree was where she now works, with DPIRD's predecessor the Department of Agriculture and Food WA at Katanning, involving biosecurity procedures and protocols for managing livestock diseases.

"It was not really where I was going, but I got to meet people in the industry and in research and I met people who were where I was aspiring to be in five years' time, so it was fantastic in that way," Ms Payne said.

But after about five months she accepted a job as research and development co-ordinator for Linley Valley Pork at Wooroloo.

"For the most part it was monitoring of pH levels and colour in the meat, but there was some research and I absolutely love the pig industry, I'd go back in a heartbeat because its research community is fantastic," she said.

"Because the pig industry is so small here, its research community is a very tight-knit group."

Ms Payne returned to Murdoch in 2017 to start her PhD which she is yet to complete.

Her "dream job" has delayed, rather than stopped, her academic achievements.

"I guess what I'm doing now was my dream job and what I was working towards when it popped up," she said.

"So far so good, I'm still on track.

"My main project at the moment is the GRF, (but) I do have some projects in the pipeline.

"One is assessing carcase feedback to producers and helping producers change management decisions to improve compliance (with an abattoir's optimum specifications).

"At the moment producers receive fat and weight measurements.

"Abattoirs have their target markets that want a specific weight and a specific fat yield so if you're a producer that can hit that grid then you get a full price, but if you're too fat, or too light or too heavy you'll get a discount.

"WAMMCO is putting in a DEXA (Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry) that will give accurate lean meat yield data to farmers.

"DPIRD is looking at guiding them through a process to use that data to better assess their animals before they go to slaughter.

"If farmers can't assess their animals accurately, they may not be turning them off for slaughter at the optimum time - they might be keeping them on farm a couple of weeks too long and sending them when they are too fat.

"The aim is to enable farmers to make management decisions that improve their productivity and profitability - if they don't have to feed animals for an extra week it helps their profitability."

Ms Payne's second project is an impressive new feed intake shed being completed at the research facility, which she hopes will be operating by the middle of the year.

"We'll be able to accurately measure the feed intake and feed efficiency of our sheep and measure gas production and body composition of the GRF flock," she said.

"This will be the first time we can measure group feeding.

"Each sheep is identified by an EID tag and feeders have a load cell bar in the bottom, so when a sheep goes up the door to the feeder opens, we know how much feed is there when the animal enters and when it leaves the amount left is weighted so we know how much is eaten.

"We will also have the ability to restrict feed to a measured amount for a particular animal to assess the impact - if it has been in and eaten its ration the doors won't open to let it in a second time.

"We'll have yards set up in the shed so we'll be able to measure how efficiently particular sheep are in converting a particular ration into growth."

Ms Payne is passionate about telling her research story, first to producers so they can benefit, but also to consumers via social media.

She joined The Livestock Collective's Livestock Leaders Program last year.

"Sixty per cent of people want to know where their food comes from -they're not extremists, just interested in healthy food," she pointed out.

"We (agriculture) need to tell our own story before activists tell it for us.

"I share a lot of our research videos on TikTok, it's just fantastic because you can reach such a large audience of young people to tell them where their food comes from and how it's raised.

"You're actually showing them how things are.

"A lot of the information I put out there is basic stuff that I didn't know growing up in the city."

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