The importance of interactions among nutrition, seasonality and socio-sexual factors in the development of hormone-free methods for controlling fertility

Scaramuzzi, R J and Martin, G B (2008) The importance of interactions among nutrition, seasonality and socio-sexual factors in the development of hormone-free methods for controlling fertility. In: UNSPECIFIED.

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Around the world, consumers are demanding animal products that are produced to agreed standards for human health, environmental management and animal welfare. This has led to the development in Australia of the concept of 'clean, green and ethical' (CGE) animal production based on the manipulation of nutrition ('focus feeding') and the application of phenomena, such as the 'male effect', to provide 'natural' methods for managing small ruminant production systems. With respect to the management of fertility, CGE involves utilization of the inherited responses of animals to environmental factors to manipulate their reproductive processes. The successful development and implementation of this new generation of management tools depends on a thorough yet holistic understanding of the interactions among environmental factors and the ways these interactions affect reproductive physiology and behaviour of the animal. For sheep and goats, a central aspect of CGE management is the way in which ovarian function is affected by three major factors (nutrition, photoperiod and socio-sexual signals) and by interactions among them. Nutrition can exert two profound yet contrasting types of effect on ovarian activity: (i) the complete inhibition of reproduction by undernutrition through the hypothalamic mechanism that controls ovulation and (ii) the enhancement of fecundity by nutritional supplementation, through a direct ovarian mechanism, in females that are already ovulating. A similarly profound control over ovarian function in female sheep and goats is exerted by the well-known endocrine responses to photoperiod (seasonality) and to male socio-sexual signals. The 'male effect' already has a long history as a valuable technique for inducing a synchronized fertile ovulation during seasonal and post-partum anoestrus in sheep and goats. Importantly, experimentation has shown that these three major environmental factors interact, synergistically and antagonistically, but the precise nature of these interactions and their significance to reproductive outcomes are not well understood. Most research to date has been with small ruminants but CGE principles can be applied to any species in a managed environment. For example, a male effect has been reported for lactating cattle and, in the horse, the pattern of seasonality of oestrus can be altered by nutrition. Well-fed mares have a longer breeding season and some animals become non-seasonal. Similar observations have been reported for sheep and goats. By working towards a holistic perspective of the physiology, nutrition, genetics and behaviour of our animals, we will be able to formulate ways to manipulate the animals' environment that will improve management, productivity and profitability and, simultaneously, promote a CGE industry.

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