The effect of red clover formononetin content on live weight gain, carcass characteristics and muscle equol content of finishing lambs

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Abstract

To investigate the effect of red clover formononetin concentration on lamb growth rate and carcass characteristics, 20 lambs (10 ewe lambs and 10 wethers) were grazed on each of three forages : red clover with a high formononetin concentration (HF), red clover with a low formononetin concentration (LF) and a control perennial ryegrass. Animals were finished at condition score 3L, at which point half of all animals were slaughtered immediately, while the other half of the animals were moved to a common ryegrass plot for 3 weeks as a 'withdrawal' period. Mean formononetin concentrations were 0.0, 4.7 and 3.3 g/kg dry matter (DM) for grass, HF and LF swards respectively. The clover swards had higher crude protein concentrations and lower fibre and water-soluble carbohydrate concentrations than the control ryegrass sward. Lambs grazing the HF clover gained 40 g/day live weight more (P <0.1) than lambs on the other two forages without an increase in forage DM intake as estimated using the n-alkane technique. There was no difference in the empty body weight, killing-out proportion, carcass fat class or condition score between animals finished on any of the three forages. Following the 3-week withdrawal period on ryegrass, there were significant residual effects of previous grazed forage on carcass weight, with HF lambs producing heavier carcasses than other lambs. Plasma concentrations of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 were highest in lambs grazing the HF clover, and suggest a physiological mechanism for the increased growth rates of these animals. There were no differences in the equol contents of the meat of lambs finished on the clover, compared with animals finished on grass, suggesting that there would be no implications for human health following consumption of meat produced from lambs grazing red clover, even with a relatively high concentration of formononetin.