Farmers have to keep rams in top condition to ensure good reproductive performance and profitability in a small stock herd.
Rams have a very important role in sheep production. But, although they are the most expensive animals on the farm, they sometimes don’t receive the correct attention until they are needed for reproduction. Dr. Dave Midgley, an animal health expert, says that farmers should always give rams a nutritious diet. If they don’t, long-term productivity losses could occur.
“It pays to look after your rams. Farmers can’t expect top performance from an unhealthy ram,” he says. “Extra care in the two months prior to mating will lead to higher fertility. Having more lambs means more money in your pocket, but also leads to a better use of the ram’s genetic potential.”
Dr. Jasper Coetzee says that when it comes to rearing breeding lambs, many sheep producers prefer well-adapted, hardy rams. To achieve this, young rams are reared in the veld with no or minimal supplementary feed.
Midgley points out that pasture and browsing are considered a primary and most economical source of nutrients for sheep. Sometimes pasture feeding alone can meet a small ruminant’s nutritional requirements.
Pasture is high in energy and protein when it’s in a vegetative state. But the high moisture content may cause insufficient quantities of protein and energy uptake. Moisture leads to bulkiness: animals feel full, but haven’t actually fed properly.
He says there will be times when the veld cannot maintain adequate growth in sheep. Then farmers have to feed supplements to provide the nutrients that forage alone cannot provide, particularly for high-producing animals.
Keep in mind that feed is the single biggest budgetary item associated with raising small ruminants. It usually accounts for at least 60% of total production costs in commercial flocks. So supplementary feeding must be carefully monitored and supplied.
Flush feeding can play an important role in ram nutrition. Coetzee suggests that if the veld cannot maintain growth of at least 90g/day from weaning to performance testing at 12 or 15 months of age, rams could be given a low-level (300g/ram/day to 750g/ram/day) ram flush mix. This should be provided daily as a supplement. Make sure that there’s enough feeding space for all the rams to feed at the same time.
He says that effective supplementary feeding is a building block of effective management and breeding practices. Farmers should think strategically about supplementary feeding as a means to achieve breeding goals.
Supplementary feed should contain the correct nutrients (particularly bypass protein and energy, minerals, trace elements and vitamins) in the right quantities and combinations. Farmers should always monitor feeding to ensure that rams are getting the right nutrients and adapt management practices when necessary.
Coetzee says that producers pay substantial amounts of money for breeding rams, but sometimes neglect to prepare these animals for maximum reproduction.
To ensure a high conception and twinning rate, rams should be in excellent condition. This means they should be fertile, have a very high libido and be top fit to serve ewes multiple times during their oestrus cycle.
The rams must have large testes (he recommends a scrotum circumference greater than 35 cm at 15 months) for adequate sperm production. From two months before the mating season, breeding rams should receive a bypass protein-based ram flush ration.
If pasture is scarce, good-quality lucerne hay must be supplemented. Alternatively, a complete ram ration can be fed.
He says that, as soon as supplementary feeding begins, farmers should start exercising the rams (30 minutes of fast walking, twice daily). In a trial conducted by Coetzee, it was found that if fit rams are mated with ewes, the conception rate of the ewes could be 92% as opposed to the 76% of ewes mated with unexercised rams.
Rams should have access to cool, clean drinking water and shade at all times. Midgley says that farmers have to ensure that rams receive a balanced ration, particularly two months before mating, when sperm cells are formed.
Test rams to make sure they’re suitable for breeding. Midgley says that only qualified vets are allowed, by law, to certify a breeding ram. This would involve a thorough clinical examination of the animal to determine its general health, scrotal circumference, semen concentration and motility, and semen morphology.
Farmers should ensure a good spread of young and old rams by replacing 25% of the ram flock every year. “If you do this, you will always have a good balance between younger, virile lambs with high libido and older rams with lots of experience,” Midgley says.
Two to three months before mating, rams should be in peak condition for optimal testicle development and sperm production to ensure the maximum conception and lambing percentage.
Farmers can’t only rely on nutrition to ensure that their rams remain healthy. An effective disease prevention and health programme is just as important to ensure ram health and performance.
Farmers should keep up all other activities, such as dosing for both roundworm and nasal bot larvae. Vaccinations against other important diseases should also be kept up to date.
These should be administered about six weeks before the mating season. He adds that vaccinations that cause fever, such as blue tongue, should rather be injected after the mating season.
“Proactive and preventative medicine requires that certain management procedures be done in advance to ensure that animals are healthy when peak performance is required,” Midgley explains. For rams, this is at mating time or during the breeding season
Also read: Your library to small stock production
Bypass protein: The feed protein that escapes digestion in the rumen and passes to the lower digestive tract where it is digested and absorbed.
Flush feeding: This form of feeding provides highly nutritious feed in the few weeks before mating to improve fertility.
Sperm motility: The ability of sperm to move properly towards an ovum (egg).
- This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.