By Keith McCord
LOGAN — A research professor at Utah State University is conducting experiments that may help farm animals live a more healthy life, which is something the agriculture industry is keeping a close eye on.
But what makes this study different: the animals will basically treat themselves.
USU research professor Juan Villalba has been studying sheep and goat behavior for several years, in an effort to reduce certain diseases that affect those animals.
“Parasites are one of the big problems — health problems of livestock animals,” Villalba said.
Not only can parasites kill animals, but they can also cause other detrimental health effects and can affect the taste of meat.
Conventional farming methods of treating diseases — using antibiotics and other chemicals — has created parasites that are becoming resistant to drugs, which is a concern worldwide.
So, in the lab, as well as in a controlled nine-acre pasture environment at Utah State, Villalba has been testing various plants that have certain medicinal properties that kill internal parasites.
“So, by the animals selecting these compounds by themselves, then that reduces the problem of resistance, because only the animals who are sick are going to seek the particular plant products.”
Starting with the barrels of feed, Villalba planted test patches in the field, mixing alfalfa and plants with medicinal compounds, which basically was a medicine cabinet for the sheep.
When microscopic tissue samples showed animals infected with a parasite, Villalba noticed the sick animals would migrate from the basic alfalfa field to the mix of plants that made them feel better. No chemicals at work here, just nature.
“So, by the animals selecting these compounds by themselves, then that reduces the problem of resistance, because only the animals who are sick are going to seek the particular plant products,” Villalba said.
And as animals started feeling better, Villalba said he noticed the sheep went back to eating their normal diet.
In the future, Villalba said, instead of traditional chemicals and medicines, treating certain animal diseases may be just a matter of planting a “pasture pharmacy,” letting animals decide when they need a prescription.
Villalba said studies like his will continue, and perhaps expand to other types of crops that other animals, such as beef cattle, graze on.