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Ram buying, a guide for small flock owners

By Eduard Dinger, sheep farmer, ram breeder and current member of the Northern Regional Sheep council.

Every year, usually after the holidays in February and sometimes later, the owner of a lifestyle block with a small flock of sheep will realise that it’s that time of the year again - the ram needs to go out with ewes.

If you have a ram on the place, a health check is all that is needed, and the ram will do the rest when the time comes. Or so you think. But what if you were not very happy with the offspring last season?

What if you had the ram for two years and he will be serving his daughters? What if your ram is in poor health or has died? What if you never had a ram before and don’t know where to start?

Here is a list of questions that I get asked frequently:

Q: Do I need a ram?
A: If you want your ewes to reproduce (ie have lambs), yes you need a ram! Of course you could use artificial insemination, but with sheep that is cumbersome and expensive.

Q: What sort of a ram shall I buy?
A: That depends on what you want. If you want to keep your ewe lambs and grow them to replace your ewes, you need a different breed of ram then when you want to get rid of all your lambs. In this case, you need to buy in new ewes to replace the old ones now and then. See later for comment on sheep breeds.

Q: Where do I buy a ram?
A: Your most reliable ram is bought from a ram breeder. He will guarantee the ram on health and fertility and replace if it dies before mating (also called tupping or joining with the ewes) in the year you bought it. You can also buy a ram at specialised ram auctions usually held in sale yards in January or February, or with the help of a Stock and Station agent.

Q: How many rams do I need?
A: One ram for every 100 ewes is sufficient and even a few more ewes/ram won’t matter.

Q: Should I buy a ram every year?
A: No you don’t have to. A good ram should last you four to five years, but in case you keep your ewe lambs for replacement, avoid putting a ram over his daughters. All though inbreeding is not always bad, you run the risk of enhancing bad traits that otherwise would go unnoticed. So if you mate your ewes and ewe hoggets, you would need a new ram every year, if you mate only your ewes, a ram every two years is sufficient.

Q: Buying a ram every year is getting a bit expensive, isn't it?
A: Yes, depending on quality, rams at auction will go from a $100 and upwards. A ram breeder will probably ask for even more. But many ram breeders can lease a ram hogget to you, which will be quite a bit cheaper. You have to appreciate that buying a ram is the most important decision you can make. A ram is responsible of up to 85% of the genetic gain of your flock. The old saying that the “ram is half the flock” is very true.

Q: What breed should I buy?
A: Here again you have to make up your mind on what you want. If you want to breed your own replacements, the most likely dam breeds are Romney, Coopworth, Perendale or their crosses with Texel, East Friesian or Finnish landrace.

If you want to get lambs that grow fast and mature quickly, a blackfaced ram (such as Dorset, Suffolk, Hampshire, Oxford or South Down) is your obvious choice. A short description of the different breeds is at the end.

Q: When should the ram be put out with the ewes?
A: Ewes will start coming into season when the daylight ratio is changing in early autumn, and this depends a little on latitude. Sheep in Northland will start to cycle earlier then those in Southland. If you want to coincide the start of the grass growing season in spring with the birth of the lambs, calculate back 153 days (which is the gestation period of sheep).

You can increase your lambing percentage by not putting the ram out till the second cycle. Nature will provide more eggs during ovulation when it misses the first time. The period between cycles is usually between 17 and 21 days. As a rough guide if you put the ram out by April 1, you can expect the lambs to born from the last week in August onward.

Q: Can I compress the period over which the lambs are born?
A: Yes, that’s another advantage of mating the ewes in the second cycle. By running a vasectomised ram with the ewes for a couple of weeks before the real ram goes out, you will get a shorter lambing period.

Q: How do I know if my ram is healthy and fertile?
Have a good look at your ram, if looks healthy, he probably is. He should not be lame, thin, be scouring or look scruffy. Infertility in rams is very rare. But if you want to be sure have the ram palpated by a Veterinarian for abnormalities of the testicles. The vet can also stimulate the ram to ejaculate and look at the sperm under a microscope. This is done by mild electric shock of the prostate.

Q: Can I dip or pour-on my sheep for lice or blowfly when the ram is out with them?
A: No, that’s not advisable. Although most dips are safer now and are not based on organophosphates any more, the stress involved can disturb the mating process of both ewes and ram. Do all the treating (including drenching) at least 14 days before the ram goes out with the ewes, and wait for at least six weeks after mating before treatment.

Q: How do I know if the ewes have been served?
A: The easiest way is to use a ram harness. The crayon in it will mark the bum of the ewe if she has been mated. If you want to know more, go to www.ceresfarm.co.nz and click on “understanding sheep”

Q: What if the ewes don’t seem to come on heat?
A: There are a few possibilities. Ewes that are over fat or too thin won’t cycle. Fungi in the grass eaten by sheep can cause a temporarily halt to ovulation. Sub-clinical Facial Eczema, another disease caused by a fungus, is also known as a cause of poor fertility. (see the web site www.ceresfarm.co.nz and look for Fusarium and Facial Eczema)

This should cover most of your questions regarding rams. However, if you want to be really serious and have the very best for your ewes and be prepared to spend a bit more money on a ram, (between $200 and $300), then there are all sort of possibilities.

You can buy rams that are:

  • Reasonably tolerant for Facial Eczema
  • Have a good tolerance for internal parasites
  • Have been sired by recorded rams for fertility, growth rate, fleece weight
  • Sheep breeds of New Zealand

There are over 30 different breeds of sheep in New Zealand. The most common are dual purpose breeds (meat and wool):

NZ Romney: most common breed in NZ and farmed almost everywhere, medium size, strong woolled, medium fertility 90 to 140%.

Coopworth: originated from Lincoln University by interbreeding the Romney with the Border Leicester. Medium to large size, strong wool, easy lambing, good fertility 110 to 160%. The Coopworth Sheep Society is the only breed society that made recording of productive traits compulsory. It is currently the second most popular breed in New Zealand.

Perendale: originated from Massey University by interbreeding the Romney with the Cheviot. Medium to small size, medium to strong bulky wool. Medium fertility 100 to 150%.

East Friesian: Fairly new breed, that gained acceptance very quickly. Large sheep with high fertility and also used as a milking breed. Mainly used as a crossbred to improve milking ability.

Borderdale: Large strong-woolled breed, good fertility 110 to 130%, used mainly on plains in the South Island.

Corriedale: Medium sized sheep mainly used in the drier parts of the south island. Medium to fine wool, fertility 100 to 130%.

Specialty breeds:

Finnish Landrace: Medium sized sheep that is too fertile for commercial conditions, but excellent to improve lambing percentage in low fertility breeds such as the Romney. Has a good natural tolerance to Facial Eczema that disappears however in the crossbreds.

Border Leicester: Large sheep that is mainly used to improve other breeds. Good fertility 120 to 160%, strong to very strong lustrous wool.

Texel: Medium sized sheep with medium bulky wool and very well muscled and very lean. Used to improve muscling in other breeds.

Merino: Medium to small sheep with very fine wool. Mainly farmed in the drier parts of the North and South Island. Also used as a crossbred to fine up coarser woolled sheep.

For reference to sheep breeds the Wool Board of New Zealand had a great book for sale on sheep breeds.

Eduard Dinger is a sheep farmer and breeder from Whitehall, Cambridge.
Website: www.ceresfarm.co.nz
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