Barnyard animal furthers cure research for Huntington’s disease

By Jamie Keyes

Smart sheepSheep have a bad reputation for not being the smartest animals in the barnyard, but research has shown that reputation may be false.

In the past, monkeys and rodents have been the experimental animal of choice for cognitive function research, but why not sheep? In 2010, the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge, decided to experiment with sheep. According to their research article Executive Decision-Making in the Domestic Sheep, sheep have a good memory and, not surprisingly, have never been used to research the cognitive functioning system. Sheep are also less temperamental than monkeys. Trials using sheep can be conducted more quickly (three weeks versus several months) than those using monkeys.

In a 21 day study, sheep were placed in a pen with two passage ways. At the end of each passage was a correct or incorrect choice, a bucket full of pellets or an empty bucket. As the experiment went on, the choices become progressively more difficult. Changing color of the buckets, different shaped objects in the way and switching the correct passageways challenged sheep to make the right decision that led them to pellets.

Even with all the obstacles, the study discovered the sheep were able to learn the difference between correct and incorrect choices. They were able to discriminate between passages, and showed irritability if a wrong decision was made.

The study concluded that “sheep have great potential, not only for use as a large animal model of HD (Huntington’s disease), but also for studying cognitive function and the evolution of complex behaviors in normal animals.”

Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease are known for disrupting the cognitive functioning system. Now, through research, sheep can contribute a way to the cure.

Morton AJ, Avanzo L (2011) Executive Decision-Making in the Domestic Sheep. PLoS ONE 6(1): e15752. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015752

Photo: Bob Jagendorf / Foter / CC BY-NC

Digestion Trials with Fresh Forage

alfalfaBased on our previous experiments, Jake Owens designed a digestibility study to investigate how eating alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil (BFT) before eating endophyte-infected tall fescue (TF) or reed canarygrass (RCG) might benefit livestock compared to livestock eating only tall fescue or RCG alone.

Trial 1: Lambs were offered alfalfa for 30 min then offered either TF or RCG for 3.5 h. In this study, fresh forage was cut and offered to each animal. Lambs ate more food, nitrogen, and energy when they ate alfalfa before eating TF or RCG compared to lambs fed only tall fescue or RCG. But eating alfalfa reduced the amount of TF and RCG compared to animals that did not receive any alfalfa.

Trial 2: Trial 2 used a new group of lambs and was similar to Trial 1 except lambs were fed BFT prior to receiving TF or RGC. Lambs fed BFT ate slightly less RCG, but much more TF than animals that did not receive BFT.

Overall, lambs ate less BFT than alfalfa, but lambs that ate BFT ate much more TF than lambs fed alfalfa. In both studies, feeding two forages had no affect on the digestibility of any of the forages.

The enhanced intake of TF by lambs fed BFT, as well as the greater nutrient intake by lambs fed a legume and a grass is likely due in part to complementary profiles of alkaloids, saponins, and tannins.

Owens, J., F.D. Provenza, R.D. Wiedmeier, and J.J. Villalba. 2012. Supplementing endophyte-infected tall fescue or reed canarygrass with alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil increases forage intake and digestibility by sheep. J. Sci. Food Agric. 92:987-992.

Photo:  International Livestock Research Institute / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

A Change in Foraging Behavior

All plants contain secondary metabolites (PSMs). These compounds can be toxic at high doses or can act like medicines at low doses. PSMs often provide benefits to plants such as increased pest resistance, drought tolerance or competitive ability. Unfortunately, many of these compounds are toxic to animals (from insects to mammals) and reduce intake of plants.

The objective of this study was to determine how different PSMs might affect the diet selection of sheep grazing forages with different PSMs: 1) alfalfa (saponins), birdsfoot trefoil (tannins) and tall fescue (alkaloids).

ChangingforagebehaviorAfter the early morning dosing with tannins, saponins or an alkaloid (ergotamine) lambs were allowed to graze a pasture that contained birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa, endophyte-infected tall fescue, and orchard grass.

Trial 1: Lambs gavaged with tannins spent more time grazing birdsfoot trefoil and tall fescue.

Trial 2: Lambs gavaged with saponons spent more time grazing tall fescue and the least time grazing alfalfa.

Trial 3: Lambs gavaged with ergotamie (alkaloid) spent more time grazing birdsfoot trefoil and the least time grazing tall fescue.

Lambs minimized the negative impacts of PSC by changing their foraging behavior to avoid over-ingesting any one PSC and by selectively increasing their preference for forages containing other PSMs.

Reference: Villalba, J.J., F.D. Provenza, A.K. Clemensen, R. Larsen, and J. Juhnke. 2011. Preference for diverse pastures by sheep in response to intraruminal administrations of tannins, saponins, and alkaloids. Grass Forage Sci. 66: 224–236.

What Affects Meat Quality and Flavor?

SteakGrass-fed livestock may provide health benefits of milk and meat from grass-fed ruminants, but little is known about how PSCs (plant secondary compounds) in various forages affect the color, flavor, and health properties of meat. Recent evidence suggests PSCs can positively influence the flavor, color and health properties of their meat and milk. For instance, tannins positively influence meat color and quality, as well as milk yield and protein content, and they markedly improve meat fatty acid composition, a major concern for consumer health. Saponins have both anticancer and immunomodulatory properties as well as cholesterol-lowering activity and saponins in the diet can be traced in the meat.

Diet also affects the palatability of meat and “off-flavors” are due in part to fatty acids in the
meat of cattle fed forages. Herbage quality, fatty acid composition, rates of microbial
fermentation in the rumen, microbial hydrogenation of double bonds, and rates of passage
through the rumen all affect flavors of meat from cattle finished on pasture (Waldman et al.
1968). Interestingly, supplementing lambs with tannins reduces the concentration of skatole (3- methyl-indole) in their back fat, which diminishes the unpleasant “sheep” and “off-flavors” flavor in meat (Priolo et al. 2009).

Taste panel results from our studies show high liking for beef samples obtained in both groups of cattle (fescue/alfalfa and fescue/sainfoin). From 25% to 45% of consumers liked the beef moderately, 35% to 25% liked the samples very much and 2.5% to 15% liked the beef extremely well. The effects of secondary compounds (tannins and saponins) in reducing the population of bacteria that produce off-flavors like skatole may explain these high scores given by consumers to grass-fed beef, when scores for standard grass-fed beef are generally lower. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (C 18:3 n 3) were also higher in animals grazing sainfoin than in animals grazing alfalfa, presumably due to the effects of tannins on ruminal biohydrogenation. These results suggest animals are able to mix forages of different qualities — fescue, sainfoin, alfalfa — in ways that produce tastier and healthier meat.

Add-On: Learning in Utero…and Early in Life

Baby lambThe crucial role of the peri-weaning period in the development of lamb feeding preferences was examined in the present study.

Without their mothers present, lambs were fed a commercial diet flavored with oregano essential oil between the 15th and 55th day of their life. After the 55th day, animals were fed the same commercial diet, but without oregano oil.

At the age of 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 months of age, preferences of lambs were tested by offering them 4 different test feeds with added eucalyptus or mint or orange or oregano essential oil. Previous exposure to oregano flavor influenced the acceptance of oregano-supplemented feed later in life, especially after the age of 9 mo.

Simitzis, P.E., J.A. Bizelis, S.G. Deligeorgis, and K. Fegeros. 2008. Effect of early dietary experiences on the development of feeding preferences in semi-intensive sheep farming systems – a brief note. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 111:391–395.

Photo:  Sarah Elizabeth Altendorf / Foter / CC BY-NC

Jungle Grazing

From time to time I receive emails from Frank Egan, a livestock producer from Australia. He sent me the photo and the following email:


I am attaching a couple of photos of what I refer to as “jungle grazing,” its a new area I am exploring. As you can see the lambs graze areas almost taller than themselves, (common Bracken Fern, Pleridium esculentum) without any apparent fear of predators.

The understory is Microlaena stipoides, a native grass with the protein/feed value similar to alfalfa. The bracken is quite poisonous to stock but our sheep make “no” attempt to eat it.

The environment wins as it provides feed and shelter for all manner of native wildlife. I believe this is a behavioral change in the stock different to the “norm”. I think it’s a result of generation-to-generation transfer of feeding behavior.
-Frank Egan

Learning in Utero

UntitledSheep were fed a control diet of concentrate and alfalfa hay. Ewes in one group were fed a concentrate ration flavored with oregano essential oil from 50 to 130 days of pregnancy.

After birth, lambs were tested at 3, 4.5, 6, 7.5 months of age and offered foods containing eucalyptus, orange or oregano essential oil. Lambs born to oregano-fed ewes ate more of the oregano-flavored feed during preference tests compared to control lambs. Lambs without exposure to oregano did not prefer one flavor to another. Total intake of lambs did not differ between groups during all preference tests. Prenatal exposure to oregano essential oil via maternal ingestion drastically influences feeding preferences of lambs till adulthood.

Simitzis, P.E., S.G. Deligeorgis, J.A. Bizelis, and K. Fegeros. 2008. Feeding preferences in lambs influenced by prenatal flavour exposure. Physiology and Behaviour 93:529–536.

Photo: Ambersky235 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Is two better than one? It depends.

Sheep can and do reduce levels of internal parasites by eating plants high in tannins. Offering growing lambs two compounds tannins and saponins is likely to increase food intake, but will it also reduce the number of internal parasites in lambs?

Lambs were 80 days of age at the beginning of the trial. Lambs that were infected with the internal parasite Haemonchus contortus (common names: red stomach worm, wire worm or barber’s pole worm) were fed a:  1) control (C) diet, 2) C plus tannin (T), 3) C plus saponin (S), or 4) a choice of T and S. A fifth group was also fed a choice of T and S, but not infected with parasites.

Animals offered a choice of S and T whether or not they were infected with parasites ate more food and gained more weight than animals offered T or S alone. However, sheep offered a choice had greater fecal egg counts (an indirect measurement of parasite loads) than sheep fed T or S.

In this study, parasite load was considered light, but still required treatment. Offering lambs a choice between saponin- and tannin-containing foods allowed them to increase nutrient intake and gain more weight but did not help them reduce their parasite load. For growing young lambs gaining weight and maximizing nutrient intake may be more important than reducing parasite load provided the parasite infection is not too high.

Reference: Conpani, G, J.O. Hall, J. Miller, and J.J. Villalba. 2013. Plant secondary compounds as complementary resources: Are they always complementary? Oecologia: in press

Goats averted to grass

Below are excerpts from a letter I received from a seed grower who wanted to know if goats could be averted to grass. He did avert the goats on his own with coaching from me. Here’s how it worked.

Part of working the magic with food aversion is giving the animals an experience where they believe a particular food is bad. I compare it to going to the Chinese Restaurant and having the black bean shrimp. If the shrimp makes you sick, you never want to eat black bean shrimp again.

Russian wildrye2 (1)In a corral, I gave the goats a big feed of the grass I wanted them to avoid and then gave them each a very carefully measured dose of LiCl, based on their body weight (200 mg/kg). If you’ve ever had a dose of Ipecac you understand how a sick feeling can be induced chemically. The goats stood around looking morose for a few hours and then resumed normal activities.

The goats ate weeds. They had a preference for the growing tips of kochia, the lambsquarter disappeared and they kept the prostrate knot weed and pig weed suppressed; they had more than they could really eat so they simply gained weight and got fat. The one clump of grass that one of the goats was forced to eat when it was tied up got nipped now and then as the goats traveled through the field.

My Bozoiski II Russian Wildrye gets tall, easily five feet, and the rows are spaced three feet apart. When it got tall, the goats lost interest in going down the little tunnels between the rows. They pretty much stayed out the grass when it was tall. That means that when the seed was close to harvest and ready to shatter the goats were not around; they stayed in the open edges of the field. After harvest they resumed patrolling the whole field looking for weeds.

Controlling Parasite: Active in One Goat Species, Passive in Another


The mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) contains 20% tannins. The tree makes up 17% of the diet of Damascus goats, but only 6% of the diet of Mamber goats. Like many natural chemicals, tannins can be a toxin or a medicine depending on the dose. Mastic tannins can interfere with an animal’s nitrogen balance but also can act as a de-wormer.

Researchers in Israel examined how readily young goats infected with gastro-intestinal parasites ate mastic foliage. Goats with internal parasites typically have a decrease in plasma cell volume value and a decline in growth rate. Mamber and Damascus goats were infected with internal parasites and then fed either hay or hay and mastic foliage.

Fecal egg counts declined sharply in goats that ate mastic foliage compared to the hay diet, but it also impaired the protein balance of the goats, determined by a decrease in blood urea levels.

When given a choice between hay and mastic, infected mamber goats ate 14% more mastic than non-infected Mamber goats. Damascus goats ate the same amount of mastic whether or not they were infected with parasite. Infected goats fed hay, regardless of breed, increased intake of mastic when given a choice between the two feeds.

Goats can passively self-medicate provided they routinely eat high and constant amounts of masticate (tannins). Goats less likely to eat mastic, such as Mamber goats, eat more of the plant only when parasite load increased. Active self-medication can be explained by the neophilic (preferring novel foods) behavior of sick animals. Self-medication of parasite-afflicted goats is a complex process, involving previous foraging habits affected by breed and experience.