Rambouillet sheep prefer mountain big sagebrush
over many other types of rangeland plants, ARS researchers have found. And it's not
just in their taste budsit's in their genes.
"Other scientists have found genetic influences on diet preference in
mice, goats, cattle, and people," says ARS geneticist Gary D. Snowder.
"Now we've found that heredity also plays a role in the sheep's preference
for sagebrush."Snowder works at ARS' U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in
The genetic findings may eventually give producers another tool for better
using rangeland forage.
"If we can breed sheep to favor specific plants, we could help both the
animals and the environment," Snowder says. For example, breeding animals
so that they prefer an especially nutritious feed could enhance production. Or
the sheep could be bred to prefer invasive weeds. They already eat some, like
Snowder and colleagues from the University of Idaho, Texas A&M University
in San Angelo, and the ARS Meat Animal Research Center in Lincoln, Nebraska,
analyzed the foraging preferences of sheep from September to October in 1996
and 1997. Their discovery of a sagebrush preference could benefit land
"Sagebrush is a common plant, covering at least 100 million acres of
western rangeland. Although it is a native plant, it is viewed in some areas as
invasive and undesirable," he says.
Snowder says it's likely that other dietary preferences of sheep also have a
genetic component. If sheep can be used more extensively to control exotic
weeds, they could help reduce the takeover of native habitat. The U.S.
Department of the Interior estimates that invasive plants and weeds spread over
federal lands at a rate of 4,600 acres per day.By
Stelljes, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
Gary D. Snowder is at the
USDA-ARS U.S. Sheep Experiment
Station, HC 62, Box 2010, Dubois, ID 83423; phone (208) 374-5306, fax (208)
"Got Weeds? Breed Sheep! " was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.