Recent research by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) could provide producers with another tool for better utilization of rangeland forage.

Through analysis of the foraging preferences of sheep, ARS researchers found that Rambouillet sheep prefer mountain big sagebrush to other types of rangeland plants. ARS, in conjunction with several universities, analyzed the foraging preferences of sheep from September to October in 1996 and 1997.

"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."

"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 leafy spurge."

Snowder says it is 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.

The article "Got Weeds? Breed Sheep!" was published in the December 2000 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, ARS' monthly publication.

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