Persistence of carotenoid pigments in the blood of concentrate-finished grazing sheep: its significance for the traceability of grass-feeding

J Anim Sci. 2003 Feb;81(2):360-7. doi: 10.2527/2003.812360x.


Carotenoid pigments are good biomarkers of grass feeding in sheep. However, grazing lambs are often stall-finished because of grass shortage. We investigated the nature of the carotenoids present in sheep blood and their persistence in this tissue. Four treatments were compared: 1) feeding a concentrate-based diet (n = 10 lambs), 2) grazing followed by a long stall-finishing period (n = 10), 3) grazing followed by a short stall-finishing period (n = 10), and 4) grazing to slaughter weight (n = 10). The concentrate supply was regulated to have similar average daily gain for all treatments. The 40 lambs were allocated to either the grazing or the stall treatments on the basis of their birth date, birth weight, and body weight. The 30 grazing lambs were further allocated to long-stall, short-stall, or grass treatment on the basis of their body weight and plasma carotenoid content. Plasma content of total carotenoids was measured by spectrophotometry during the grazing and the stall periods for all lambs and at slaughter weight for the eight heaviest lambs of each treatment. Analysis of the nature and the concentration of individual carotenoids was performed by HPLC on pasture and stall diets and on blood of grazing lambs. The carotenoid content of the stall diet was 2 to 3% that of the pasture diet. Lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene accounted for 43 to 58%, 3 to 17%, and 0 to 7% of total plasma carotenoids in grazing lambs, respectively. Two unknown polar carotenoids, expressed in lutein equivalent, accounted for 10 to 22% and 0 to 9% of total carotenoids. Plasma carotenoid content during the grazing and the finishing periods varied among animals (P < 0.001). At slaughter weight, plasma carotenoid content was higher for grass-fed than for stall-fed, long-stall finished, or short-stall finished lambs (P < 0.001), and reliably distinguished grass-fed lambs from all the others. Plasma carotenoid content decreased exponentially with the interval from starting on the stall diet (P < 0.005). The deceleration parameter of the model increased linearly with lamb average daily gain during the stall-finishing period, suggesting that the turnover of carotenoids in the blood may depend on the level of intake of the stall-finishing diet. After 4 to 13 d on the stall diet, depending on the initial plasma carotenoid concentration, plasma carotenoid concentration of previously grazed, stall-finished lambs fell to the values of lambs fed a concentrate diet without grazing. Such a low persistence is of interest for discriminating grazing lambs from stall-finished grazing lambs.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry / methods
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / analysis*
  • Antioxidants / pharmacokinetics
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Carotenoids / blood*
  • Carotenoids / pharmacokinetics
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid / veterinary
  • Male
  • Poaceae*
  • Random Allocation
  • Sheep / blood
  • Sheep / growth & development
  • Sheep / metabolism*
  • Spectrophotometry / veterinary


  • Antioxidants
  • Biomarkers
  • Carotenoids