Nature, nurture, and vegetation management: Studies with sheep and goats. Academic Article uri icon


  • Diet selection and preference by grazing animals are determined by genetic and environmental factors (i.e., nature and nurture) that interact and affect their efficacy for managing vegetation as targeted grazers. The effect of rearing environment on the consumption of leafy spurge by sheep and goats was investigated. We hypothesized that although rearing environment will affect the preference for chemically defended plants ultimately, the inherent ability to detoxify or eliminate phytotoxins will limit an animal's preference for them. The objective of this study was to determine if sheep would consume more of the invasive weed leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) if they were raised by goat compared to sheep raised by sheep and goat raised by goat. Sheep were raised on leafy spurge-infested pastures by either their ewe (S) or a goat doe (FS) on which they were fostered within 24 hours of birth and parturition of lamb and doe, respectively. Does that fostered lambs also raised their own goat offspring (G) such that the same doe raised the FS and G animals. The rearing environment's effect on leafy spurge consumption was tested the following growing season by simultaneously grazing all animals on the same leafy spurge-infested rangeland and estimating percentage leafy spurge in their diet with either fecal near-infrared spectroscopy (f.NIR) or bite count. Goats consumed more leafy spurge as determined by either f.NIR (62.8%, P<0.06) or bite count (71.9%, P<0.01) than FS (35.2%f.NIR, 39.3% bite count) or S (10.1%f.NIR, 18.2% bite count). The FS consumed over twice as much leafy spurge as S and were numerically intermediate to G and S for leafy spurge consumption but not significantly different from the S sheep, most likely because one FS sheep did not eat leafy spurge during the evaluation period. Because leafy spurge is aversive to sheep but not goats, higher leafy spurge consumption by FS sheep is hypothesized to result from inoculation of their rumen microbes with microbes from the does capable of denaturing aversive phytotoxins in leafy spurge. The higher consumption of leafy spurge by G compared to FS shows that genetically determined physiological differences influence an animal's ability to ameliorate phytotoxins and determine the upper limit of an animal's preference for a chemically defended plant. It also indicated that in addition to the animal's genome, the genome of an animal's microbiome, which the mother may influence, can play an important role in diet selection.

published proceedings

  • Animal

altmetric score

  • 7.35

author list (cited authors)

  • Walker, J. W., & Kronberg, S. L.

citation count

  • 0

complete list of authors

  • Walker, John W||Kronberg, Scott L

publication date

  • January 2022

published in