In this tutorial we are going discuss one of the early preparation steps for lambing – namely, preparing your ram (male breeding sheep or a tup) for the mating season. This tutorial assumes that already have a ram (or rams) ready to breed from. We will not be discussing buying a ram, or ram selection based on desired genetic traits – these are topics I’ll be covering in a future tutorial.
On our farm around late August, we start to the process of improving our breeding rams for the coming mating season. Improving the condition of the rams prior to mating will help with the results we get during the lambing season the following year.
It’s important to have rams in prime physical condition as they have lot of reasonability in any sheep production system. They are fifty percent of the flock’s genetic makeup so it’s crucial that they running at their optimum – especially during the mating season as it’s the only time of year they need to perform.
But how do we get a breeding ram into peak physical condition? Why do we need to do this? And what the consequences if we don’t? Well, in today’s sheep farming tutorial we will take a close look at these and other key points.
How many breeding rams do you need?
How many rams do you need per breeding ewe? Well, there are a few factors to consider, these are:
- Size of flock that needs to be served
- Maturity of the ram and his breeding experience
- Condition of the ram
- Breed of ram
- If the ewes have been sponged
- Length of your sheep breeding season
On small farms the ratio of rams to breeding ewes might be anything up to 1-35 females per ram. This figure may be smaller if you are using an immature ram, one that lacks breeding experience.
The stocking levels on your farm and the type of production system you have in place can determine the ram to ewe ratio. On large farms, moorland farming systems, and those in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, it’s not unusual to have ratios of 50-150 breeding ewes per ram.
The physical condition of the ram is very important. Rams in good health will be able to serve more ewes and it may result in more successful pregnancies. Rams that are fat, excessively thin, or suffer from poor health will serve fewer ewes; resulting in more bad pregnancies (pregnancies that do not hold, or are aborted).
If the ewes have been sponged (the process of inserting a hormonal sponge that encourages an early estrus cycle in the ewe) you may need to reduce the number of ewes the ram has to serve. The ram will have less time to serve the females, and he’ll have to mate with them at quicker rate – he must be capable of this task. So when sponging is used, it’s best to either reduce the number of ewes or use a mature male who has the necessary experience.
When to start the preparation?
On our farm we start the process of preparing the breeding males approximately one month before they are due to serve any ewes. The reason for this relates to semen production in male sheep.
Sheep semen has a life of around approximately three to four weeks when living in the male’s testicles. Keeping males away from any ewe prior to mating will result in them having a larger semen reserve to use during the initial mating period, therefore improving the pregnancy rate in your ewes.
So how do we prepare our rams once they are isolated and away from the breeding sheep? On our farm we perform the following maintenance on them:
- We bring any rams inside or isolate them to a secure field or pen. This is usually well away from any breeding ewes.
- We worm and vaccinate them.
- We trim their feet and try to treat any lameness if possible.
- Give them a good physical inspection – we check for missing teeth, check their testicles and just check for good all round health. Their testicles should be spongy and firm – this feeling should be even across both side of the scrotal sack.
- We place them on a special diet. We place them on a dedicated breeding ram pellet. We might also give them a feed block – this is usually one designed for breeding males.
- We flush our breeding rams at the same time we flush our breeding ewes (2-3 weeks prior to breeding). We drench our flock with a mineral drench that’s mixed with a wormer and a flukiside (liver fluke). This is a special drench that can be mixed: you cannot just mix any drenching products together, ensure you check the drench manufactures instructions before doing this – you’ve been warned.
After de-worming, you should move your rams onto fresh pasture to avoid re-infestation by worms and other parasites. Personally, I like to give them a day on their old pasture, and then move them onto fresh grass. Sheep usually expel a large amount of worm eggs after a drench, so this isolates these large quantities of eggs to the old pasture.
If you keep your rams indoors (like ours) you should feed them on a hay or silage. Rams kept inside after de-worming will not pick up worms as they should be feeding from racks or from feed troughs. The sheep shouldn’t pick up any of the worm eggs that are expelled after drenching due to the fact that they are no longer grazing and eating off the ground.
How to start the isolation
When isolating your breeding rams it’s a good idea to put them somewhere secure. On our farm we usually move them into our cow shed. For us, this is a great place to keep them as it’s nearby, therefore making the twice daily feeding easier. It’s also very secure and they won’t be able to break out.
It’s not necessary to keep your rams inside when preparing them for the breeding. You can isolate them to secure field if you cannot keep them inside.
If you have to keep your breeding rams near your sheep make sure they are behind good fencing. Sometimes it’s worth backing up your existing fencing with electric fencing as a secondary precaution. If they can smell and see any females in season they will try to smash though any fencing between them. So electrifying your fencing to provide an extra barrier can be a good idea.
Should i split rams up to prevent fighting?
This is a tricky question. The answer is yes and no. A lot depends on the personality of the animals, their age, and if the boys are familiar with each other. Consider the following factors:
- If the rams have been with each other since they were young then they will be less likely to fight. You might be able to get away with mixing them during the isolation.
- If the rams are of a different size, you can usually mix them. Biggest ram will be the boss and the smaller one will know his place. They will be less likely to fight. However, the biggest ram is likely to bully the other one and will usually try to steal their food. This can be a real problem if left unchecked; if this happens I recommend separating them.
- If you bring a new male into your flock they are more likely to fight. When we’ve bought a new ram we never mix them with our other males near breeding time. If you do they will often fight and the results can be fatal.
- If you have to keep your rams near your breeding sheep flock they will be more likely to fight. Once those boys smell those ovulating females they can go crazy. This can turn friendly breeding rams into enemies. I would keep them separate if this happens.
- Some breeding rams are just crazy and cannot be trusted with other males. If you have one like this you have no other choice but to keep him separate from any other males. I would also watch yourself around rams like these. They can be as dangerous to humans as they can to other breeding males.
If you do choose to mix your rams during isolation keep a close eye on them. I’ve rams that were friendly with each other suddenly turn on each other for no reason. We’ve also had small rams that have decided to have a go at the bigger dominant males (this is often when there’s not much of a size difference between the two). Things can turn nasty very quickly so it’s best to make sure that when you mix your males you keep them somewhere you can keep an eye on them.
Again, if you need to keep your rams in a field an electric fence can be a valuable tool for keeping them separate and preventing fighting. This can save you having to build additional pens to house them outside.
What does ram fight look like?
When you keep breeding rams together they will always be a bit of low key fighting amongst themselves. This is perfectly natural. This type of fighting is often seen around meal times – rams will swipe and head butt each other, and barge each other out of the way.
The serious type of fighting is when the rams start to run and head butt each other from a distance. The powerful impact of their colliding heads will make a bone crunching thud that can sometimes be heard miles away. They will keep head butting each other resulting in both rams becoming bruised and bloody. The rams can take this impact as they have thick skulls that designed for this purpose.
The danger from this situation comes when one rams neck slips to the side on an impact. This can result in a broken neck and death. What’s worse is that it’s usually the smaller ram that’ll win a fight like this.
Smaller rams have a habit of slipping up and under the bigger rams head on impact, increasing the likelihood of a broken neck in the bigger ram. I’ve heard many tales of farmers finding the aftermath of a ram fight, only to find that their big prize winning ram has been killed by a smaller individual.
Also, always make sure your rams are vaccinated against Clostridia. There is a particularly nasty strain of this sheep disease (bighead) that can strike rams and tups that have not been immunized. It infects rams by getting in wounds produced when they fight.
What should I feed rams prior to mating?
Feeding the rams prior to breeding is a simple task. On our farm we tend to place them on a specialist breeding ram feed and top this up with a dedicated feed block. We also give them plenty of good quality hay or silage – make sure the silage is free of any mould, and avoid feeding them very wet silage (they’ll leave it).
This type of specialist feed might go under different names depending on where you live. In parts of England (where I live) rams are often revered to as ‘tups’, and the special feeds are often referred to as ‘tup’ feeds at the feed store/farm store.
How much specialist feed should your feed your ram?
This is depends on the breed, size, condition and age of them.
Feed bags sometimes come with directions on the quantity of feed to provide ram based on how much they weigh. You should be able to estimate your rams weight based on scoring if you do not have access to any livestock scales. Alternatively the feed store may be able to provide you with information about the quantities you should give your boys.
On our farm we breed using Suffolk, Texile and Charollais rams. We usually buy any new rams when they are 18 months old. At this point they usually want around a fifth of a bucket of feed twice a day. This will give some idea of the quantities of feed you may need when preparing your rams for breeding.
If you are housing your rams in a field, ensure you take the quantity and quality of grazing grass available into consideration. If there is lots of good grass available you can reduce their daily feed; likewise if there’s not much grass left you may have to increase the quantity of ram feed, or supplement it with other forage – silage, hay, or even turnips.
As mentioned earlier, if you mixing your rams during isolation, keep an eye on the smaller individuals during feeding times. Make sure they are getting their ration of feed. If you don’t you will end up with thin and fat breeding rams, and neither of these are desirable.
Conclusion on feeding
Be careful when feeding them during this period. The purpose of this isolation is to get the rams into peak physical condition – they want to be literally fighting fit. A ram can lose anything up to 15% of their body weight during breeding, so it’s critical that they are in the peak physical condition before turning out. They do not want to fat. A fat ram is lazy ram, and lazy ram will underperform when it comes to breeding. A body score of about 3.5-4 is desirable. If you suspect your rams are getting fat reduce their feed or eliminate it completely.
Lastly, Some Advice: Tip No 1
Here one tip from us. During the isolation period we like to get the rams used to eating their feed out of buckets, instead of from feeding troughs or trays. We get them used sticking their heads fully into the bucket when feeding. The idea is to get the ram to associate the bucket with food.
If you are successful the ram should come running to you every time he will see you with a bucket, even when he’s outside with his ewes. Our rams will quite happily stick their heads in a bucket even if we are hanging out of the Landrover, or on our quad bike. If you can get your rams to eat feed like this you’ll be able to continue to feed them during the sheep breeding season. This will help them to maintain their body weight. Any ewes with the ram won’t be able to get to his feed if his head stuck in a bucket. If you were to dump his feed on the ground or in a trough with the ewes around, the ewes will steal it from him.
Whilst his head is in the bucket you can use this opportunity to your advantage. He’s blind to what’s going on around him. If you need to turn him over for something you can catch him whilst his buckets on his head and he can’t see what’s going on. This can be handy if you need to trim his feet, inject him, put some raddle (or a ram crayon) on him, etc.
Tip Number Two
Also, before you’re finally ready to turn your ram loose on the ewes, it’s worth giving their feet another clip, spray and possibly a foot bath. This might be the last time you can easily get to your ram(s), so it’s worth give them a bit of trim whilst it’s still fairly easy.
It should help to minimise lameness and spraying/bathing their hoofs will help to reduce the build up of any scold. Pay particular attention to the back hoofs when trimming them as your ram will need these more than the front ones during the breeding season.
Have you enjoyed this article. Do you have any tips or questions about ram preparation prior to breeding? Please share your thoughts and views in the comments below. I’ll do my best to respond and answer any questions.