A grazing experiment, conducted for 55 days (from 4 March to 29 April) in the late summer/autumn of 1997, at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand, compared the reproductive efficiency and wool growth of ewes grazing Lotus corniculatus (birdsfoot trefoil) or perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne)/white clover (Trifolium repens) dominant pasture (pasture). Half the ewes grazing each forage were given daily oral polyethylene glycol (PEG: molecular weight 3500) supplementation to inactivate the condensed tannins (CT) in lotus. A rotational grazing system with 200 mixed age ewes (54·2±0·88 kg/ewe; 50 ewes/treatment) was used.
The effect of forage species and PEG supplementation upon voluntary feed intake (VFI), concentration of plasma metabolites, reproductive efficiency, wool production and wool characteristics was measured during two synchronized oestrous cycles. The ewes were restricted to maintenance feeding for the first 12 days of each oestrous cycle and then increased to ad libitum for the 6 days prior to and including ovulation. Lotus contained 17 g total CT/kg dry matter (DM) in the diet selected. There were only trace amounts of total CT in pasture. In vitro organic matter digestibility (OMD) was higher for lotus (0·82 v. 0·74) than for pasture, whilst lotus contained less nitrogen (N; 37·8 v. 44·5 g/kg OM).
Mean ovulation rates (OR) for CT-acting and PEG sheep grazing pasture and lotus were respectively 1·33 v. 1·35 and 1·78 v. 1·56, with corresponding lambing percentages being 1·36 v. 1·36 and 1·70 v. 1·42. Fecundity (number of corpora lutea/ewe ovulating) was greater for ewes grazing lotus than pasture (P<0·01), and tended to be greater for CT-acting than for PEG sheep grazing lotus (P=0·06). In unsupplemented sheep, ewes grazing lotus had increased plasma concentrations of branched chain amino acids (BCAA; 57%) and essential amino acids (EAA; 52%) compared to ewes grazing pasture.
In ewes grazing pasture, PEG administration had no effect on plasma concentrations of urea and free amino acids, VFI, reproductive efficiency and wool production. However, in sheep grazing lotus, plasma concentrations of urea were significantly lower and concentrations of most amino acids were significantly higher for CT-acting than for PEG supplemented ewes (CT not acting); there was no difference in VFI between these two groups. Compared to ewes grazing pasture, ewes grazing lotus had similar VFI but produced more wool with longer staples and thicker fibre diameter, with there being no effect of PEG supplementation.
It was concluded that feeding lotus increased the efficiency of both reproduction and wool production without an increase in VFI, and that a possible cause was the action of CT in increasing plasma EAA and especially BCAA concentration.