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Year-round lamb chops from the West?

Year-round lamb chops from the West?

It happens this time every year. Fresh lamb chops from the intermountain West become less noticeable in supermarkets, and this usually lasts until late summer. The reason is the seasonal clock of sheep, and as a result, the less plentiful lamb chops from Texas and California are sold.

In the intermountain West, which supplies most of the nation's lamb chops, "sheep usually mate when the daylight shortens in the fall and produce lambs in the spring," says James A. Fitzgerald, an animal physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research Service in Dubois, Idaho. "The time frame is slightly different in California and Texas because of the differences in climate, and also the sheep have longer breeding periods."

Ordinarily, the intermountain lambs are fattened up to about 120 pounds and placed on the market in fall and winter. But USDA researchers are using hormones and artificial light to try to reset the mating clocks of these sheep so that supermarkets can be stocked evenly with lamb chops year-round. And so far, the results have been promising.

When Fitzgerald was at Cornell University from 1980 to 1982, he placed ewes and rams in a windowless barn and controlled the amount of light they received. During the artificially short days and long nights, the sheep's brains released the hormone melatonin, which told the sheep it was time to mate. Normally, the hormone is released during nature's short days during fall and winter. A sheep's gestational period is five months.

But there was a problem. While only a few rams are needed for breeding -- one ram can impregnate 50 ewes -- a large number of ewes are needed, more than a typical barn can accommodate.

So when Fitzgerald relocated to Dubois in 1983, he combined his efforts with those of animal physiologist John N. Stellflug, who had been experimenting with giving melatonin to grazing ewes, first in the form of food supplements and then with implants. These ewes were paired with rams whose cycles had been manipulated in windowless barns; the experimental breeding was successful.

Because not every farmer has a windowless barn, Fitzgerald and Stellflug then decided to give melatonin to both ewes and rams to precipitate breeding during the early spring and lambing during the late summer.

Since December 1986 they have been comparing a fooled group with a nonmanipulated group. So far, lamb production has been the same for both groups.

Fitzgerald says the fooled group appears healthy and happy, but he and Stellflug still need to examine how long the sheep can be fooled and also melatonin's long-term effects.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 23, 1988
Words:437
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