Choosing a Ram
The Perfect Gentleman!
Choosing a ram is one of the most important decisions the shepherd has to make as he will contribute 50% of the genetic make up of your future flock and, properly looked after, will provide several seasons good service. So it’s important that the ram you choose is well bred, sound and healthy. In addition to buying a new ram, this article will cover two key aspects of ram management, one obvious – preparation and mating, and one that is frequently overlooked – the other 331 days of the year when he’s not working!
Plan Well Ahead
Ideally, your new ram should be settling into his new home at least 10 weeks before joining the ewes. Not only will this allow a quarantine period, but you’ll also be able to adjust his body condition score if necessary and administer any treatments to bring him into line with your flock’s health plan.
Before you start thinking about going to the autumn ram sales, or contacting breeders, sit down and draw up a list of exact requirements that you want your new ram to bring to the flock. For example, if you have a pedigree flock there may be an aspect of the breed standard that is lacking in your current stock, so the ram you choose should be as near perfect as possible in this attribute to produce progeny that are closer to the ideal. If your flock is kept specifically to produce wool, you may want to improve the fleece quality, in which case the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) can assess the ‘wool on the hoof’ of a prospective ram. On the other hand, if you’re producing fat lambs for market, your ideal ram is likely to come from one of the ‘terminal sire’ breeds that will deliver offspring with a well muscled body conformation and good growth rates: increasingly, the recognised way of selecting such a ram is to use EBVs.
Estimated Breeding Values
A ram’s EBV can give a good indication of the traits that he will pass on to his offspring, based on records of his past family performance and his own measured genetic strengths, and are expressed as an Index figure. Each breed has its own benchmarks, and you can compare rams online (www.signetfbc.co.uk) within a specific breed, but not between breeds. These details will also be displayed for performance-recorded rams at sales.
As well as terminal sire rams; it’s also possible to measure the ‘maternal traits’ that a ram will pass on to his progeny, and which will be realised in the next but one generation. This is especially relevant in a flock that breeds its own replacement females, and will be seen in prolific twin or triplet-bearing ewes that milk well, with little or no intervention from the shepherd at lambing, and will rear lambs that grow faster to weaning. In a commercial flock these traits can have a significant financial impact.
Accreditation Schemes and Scrapie Genotyping
Already, there’s quite a lot to consider in the purchase of your new ram – but there’s still a good deal more to think about! Increasingly, shepherds will choose to keep a ‘closed flock’, where the only bought-in stock are rams to introduce new genetics when necessary, and all other stock is home-bred. This, together with a strict quarantine policy, can help protect the flock from disease, or drug-resistant parasites that may be brought in by new animals. Another means of protection is to purchase your ram from an ‘accredited’ flock. These are closed flocks where all the sheep have been tested negative for the presence of a range of specific infectious diseases. Currently there are Accreditation Schemes for Maedi Visna (MV) and Enzootic Abortion (EAE), both operated by SAC Consulting who also offer a pre-purchase screening service for these diseases, as well as for Caseous Lymphadenitis (CLA) and Border Disease. Although these diseases are not yet endemic in the UK flock, there is evidence that they are becoming more widespread. So if you have a healthy flock, it makes sense to purchase animals with an equal or superior health status.
Many flocks are also ‘Scrapie Monitored’. Scrapie is a degenerative brain disease that has been strictly controlled in the UK flock. But the disease has not gone away and a simple blood-test can confirm the degree of resistance of a potential ram purchase: ideally, your new ram should be Type 1 genotype (also expressed as ARR/ARR), meaning he will pass a good level of resistance on to his offspring.
Where to Buy?
Buying direct from the farm means you can see the environment he’s used to, as well as talk to the farmer about his breeding and management. Markets & Sales give you the opportunity to view a wide range of potential rams, but these venues also provide an opportunity for the spread of disease, so be vigilant for any signs of ill health. Breed society sales of accredited rams are probably the best source of reliable, high quality pedigree stock. If your holding is in an area where tick-borne diseases are endemic, try to buy from within the area as rams will have some acquired immunity.
Fit for Purpose
Once you’ve established your new ram’s ‘job description’, and decided on your key health status criteria, it’s time to start looking at suitable animals – but always with a very careful eye! In recent years, the standard ram checklist has comprised the 5 ‘T’s: Toes, Teeth, Testicles, Tone and Treatments, but thanks to a friend just returned from a sheep study tour in New Zealand, I can now add an important sixth: Tossle. You have to admire the down-to-earth approach of our antipodean cousins!
So, working through the T’s, this is what you should look for:
Toes – especially important, as you don’t want him sitting down on the job due to sore feet! Make sure the two clews are even and well shaped, he should be well up on his pasterns, and there should be no bad smell or heat in the foot that would indicate disease. If you’re looking at an older ram, check his locomotion to make sure he’s not suffering from any form of lameness, such as chronic arthritis.
Teeth – check all his front teeth (incisors) are present and bite well onto the top pad; these teeth can also confirm the ram’s age – a full-mouth ram will have 8 fully erupted teeth in his 3rd year. Feel along the outside of his cheeks for swelling or tenderness that could indicate dental disease.
Testicles – firstly inspect the scrotum: it should be firm (like a flexed bicep), large (with a circumference of 30-40cm depending on breed) and contain two even-sized testicles that aremobile within the scrotum, which should be free of sores or injuries. At the base of the scrotum is the walnut-sized Epididimus where semen is stored. Also check for parasites, especially Chorioptic Mange, which will cause intense irritation to the ram. It’s also important to keep the testes cool, so provide shade at all times.
Tone – at mating the ram should have a Body Condition Score of 3.5-4 (out of 5), it will take about 4 weeks to add ½ BCS, so if you need to feed, start early with a small amount of concentrate feed daily (no more than 500g), aiming for an ‘athletic’ – not fat – physique.
Tossle – you’ll need to tip the ram to do a proper inspection. Firstly, extrude the penis, and check that there are no scars or sores, and that the worm-like appendage is intact.
Treatments – once you’ve selected a ram that both fits all your criteria and is fit and healthy in all respects, ask the seller about his vaccination status and recent treatments, including vaccinations and worming history.
You should also carefully check the ram’s skin, especially around his neck and shoulders, and observe him closely for signs of rubbing, irritation or bald patches that could indicate he is harbouring the mite that causes sheep scab. If in any doubt, walk away.
Ask the breeder how the ram has been fed. If he’s used to being fed high levels of concentrates and your flock is pasture-fed, you may see your fine-looking ram melt before your eyes once he’s home. Furthermore, an intensively fed ram is likely to have a lowered sperm count and can develop kidney stones (urinary calculi), which will certainly impair his activity and can be life-threatening.
Quarantine and Acclimatisation
Place him in a quarantine paddock as far away as possible from any other sheep and monitor closely for signs of disease for a minimum of 21 days. Once he’s had a day to settle, even if he has been recently treated for worms, assume he carries multi-drug resistant worms and treat by drenching with a clear (Ivermectin) drench followed by one of the two new drench classes: either Zolvix (orange) or Startect (purple), as well as a flukicide that removes both adult and immature fluke (this is one occasion where a combination drench is appropriate). If unsure of his vaccination status, bring him into line with your regime.
If you have other rams on your farm, you will need to introduce your new ram with great care, as they will fight and it’s not uncommon for a ram to seriously injure or kill another ram. By initially penning rams tightly together they will be unable to create the momentum to do serious harm, but don’t underestimate their strength and be prepared to separate them – with due regard to your own safety. Most small groups of rams will learn to live together happily, and if you only have the one ram, keep a weaned wether lamb as a companion to the stock ram.
Preparation for Joining the Ewes & Tupping
The ram, or ‘tup’, has to work very hard over a relatively short space of time, so it’s important that he’s in peak condition at the start of mating. Sperm production takes about 2 months; during this time avoid stressful handling, provide shade, best grazing, fresh water and a little feed if the grazing is poor (this will also train him to come to the trough, making it easier to catch him later).
A mature ram will be able to serve 80 or more adult ewes in a breeding cycle, although around 30-50 is more usual, especially if the flock includes ewe lambs. Don’t expect a ram lamb to serve more than 30 ewes, and you shouldn’t use an inexperienced ram lamb with inexperienced ewe lambs! Ideally, mating should take place in small, flat fields to save the ram having to run around too much, and by providing good grazing neither he nor his ewes will have to forage hard.
Using a harness and raddle on the ram will tell you which ewes have been tupped, and on which day during their oestrus cycle, which lasts 17 days. If at the end of the first cycle you change the colour of the crayon (at which time you can tip the ram and give him a quick check for any sores on his brisket), you can see which ewes failed to conceive on the first cycle and return to the ram. It’s usual to leave the ram with the ewe for 2 cycles (34 days); any longer can result in an inconvenient lengthy lambing period that brings its own set of management problems 5 months later!
Another way to achieve a compact lambing is to use a ‘teaser’ – a vasectomised ram – to induce the ‘ram effect’ for up to 14 days before the ram is introduced. If you do use a teaser, it’s important to have him fertility tested each year by your vet, as it is possible for the procedure to revert!
His Long Holiday!
Job done, it’s time for your ram to return to the bachelor paddock with his companions, so, even if they were best of pals before, expect some argy-bargy and take precautions to prevent fighting injuries. Give the ram a good check-over and treat any problem areas. Keep the rams on good quality grazing to maintain condition throughout the year, provide shade and fresh water at all times. Look after him and your ram will give you years of good service, and when you need to change rams to bring in new genes, you will have a valuable, proven asset to sell.
This article was originally written by Carole Youngs for
Practical Sheep, Goats & Alpacas Magazine.