Considerations for purchasing and managing rams
By Whit Stewart
There are approximately 215,000 breeding ewes in Wyoming, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service 2020 Report.
Assuming a ram-to-ewe breeding ratio of three rams per 100 ewes, there will be roughly 6,456 rams utilized during this year’s breeding season. An estimated 30 percent replacement rate of rams would mean roughly 1,936 young rams are being purchased to replenish the annual turnover rate in rams. In order to set rams up for success, important considerations must be taken into account.
Too often it appears all the emphasis is placed on the myriad of selection criterion that goes into picking out the “perfect” ram, but too little consideration is given to help him be successful beyond his first year. Even the most advanced selection strategy is all for naught if ram management strategies are lacking.
Protecting the investment of purchasing a ram doesn’t have to be complex. The following might help serve as a reminder when gearing up for ram purchases this fall.
A good strategy after purchasing a ram is a minimum quarantine protocol of 14 to 21 days where rams are kept separate from other sheep in the flock, including nose-to-nose contact. Observing anything out of the ordinary during this two- to three-week protocol is important with the hopes of not introducing an infectious agent to the rest of the flock.
At unloading, a pour-on external treatment and internal parasite drench may be warranted so parasites are not brought in. A combination deworming drench – a full dose of two different de-wormers administered separately – may be needed given increasing frequency of internal parasite resistance to many common dewormers in the region.
If operating in irrigated areas, running rams through a footbath can also help ensure footrot causing organisms are not introduced to the flock. Asking ram sellers about their flock health protocols and biosecurity practices prior to purchase can be especially informative to ram buyers. Purchased rams should improve economically relevant traits, including pounds of lamb weaned, wool and growth, while avoiding introduction of infectious organisms which will limit the flock’s potential.
Adapting a ram to his new environment should begin with asking a seller about the type of diet and environment the ram was reared in. Many rams are familiar with the feed bunk in a drylot environment, but may be less familiar with grazing resources where they are intended to work during the breeding season. Consequently, we need to make sure we minimize the stress associated with this transition.
Breeding season management
Most breeding rams, whether ram lambs or yearlings, may likely be over-conditioned at purchase and should be adapted to their new-found reality of a range-based diet. A medium-quality hay fed during quarantine and the weeks leading up to breeding can help them nutritionally adapt to a forage-based diet. If producers will be supplementing an unfamiliar feed byproduct or supplement to the rest of the flock during breeding, acquainting rams with these types of feed prior to turnout is helpful.
Diets too high in crude protein – greater than 16 percent – can exacerbate the formation of pizzle rot or ulcers on the ram’s sheath, which are painful for the ram and can decrease drive to breed. Access to a palatable mineral upon arrival, and leading up to breeding, will help ensure building up critical trace element reserves prior to breeding season demands.
Remember rams will travel two to five times farther per day than ewes, with eight to 13 services per 13-hour period during the breeding season. Consequently, rams will lose body condition throughout the breeding season and should be monitored throughout the breeding season to avoid excessive weight loss.
Undernourished rams have decreased testicular size and circulating hormone concentrations. When rams lose more than 15 percent of their live body weight, 37.5 pounds for a 250-pound ram for example, during the breeding season, they will experience a dramatic decrease in libido and lose interest in staying with ewe-flock. Seeing rams, especially black face rams, on larger range flocks disassociate with the flock toward the end of the breeding season is not uncommon. This can be an unfortunate cue the ram has experienced significant nutritional restriction and has lost interest in the ewes.
In contrast, the little bit of grain fed to the ram and ewes while in the breeding pasture for a good flush can also help the ram maintain stamina. Monitoring ram condition and supplementing accordingly with additional energy has been documented to increase testicular size and stamina during the breeding season. Ram lambs should be monitored more closely as excessive weight loss during their first breeding season is harder to remedy than long-yearling or mature rams.
Post-breeding nutritional management
Ensuring rams receive adequate nutrition post-breeding is critical and often overlooked in our region. The knee-jerk impulse with ram longevity problems is to criticize the breeder or underlying genetics when much of the problem can be solved with adequate nutritional and animal health interventions post-breeding. While I do agree rams should be easy keeping and adaptable to their environment, they cannot defy their physiology and thrive under impossible conditions.
Ram longevity can only be achieved in as much as we help the ram recuperate from excessive weight loss post-breeding. The cost per ram when mated to 40 ewes at a purchase price of $800 is approximately $20 per ewe in the first year. Assuming producers can achieve a conservative three breeding seasons or 120 ewes across a three-year breeding season, this cost is reduced to $6.60 per ewe over three years.
Survey data collected from producers across the region indicates ram longevity is an issue with the average terminal-sire “black face” ram averaging less than two breeding seasons, whereas wool breed ram longevity across ranches surveyed averages four years. Many of the ranches surveyed indicated they do not implement a specific post-breeding strategy for their rams.
Even with the cost of feed this year, producers can’t afford to nutritionally mismanage rams post-breeding. A seven-year study at Colorado State University evaluating over 11,000 rams in western flocks found rams in below-average body condition were significantly more likely to have substandard semen characteristics. An extra one to two pounds of supplement, in addition to free-choice hay or adequate pasture, can go a long way in helping improve ram longevity post-breeding.
Teeth wear and alignment
Generally, teeth issues come in the form of excessive wear and poor alignment of incisors with the upper dental pad. Excessive wear refers to shortening or widening gaps between the lower incisors. Oftentimes, poor body condition is correlated to excessive incisor wear in rams and ewes and can help indirectly point to rams which should be culled.
Proper alignment of teeth with the upper dental pad is important because it directly affects functionality and longevity on Wyoming’s challenging landscapes. Specifically, it relates to the friction or “nip” force between the lower teeth, or incisors, and upper dental pad, which cuts plant material. The inability to properly sever the forage limits the ability of animals to consume adequate forage.
Proper teeth-to-pad contact reduces the stress at the tooth root and will result in proper wear. Bottom teeth have to align with the upper dental pad. Broadly speaking, the upper dental pad cannot extend beyond the lower incisors, resulting in parrot mouth, nor can the lower teeth extend beyond the upper dental pad, resulting in bulldog mouth.
I’ve observed most parrot mouth sheep are identified and culled, yet there is far too much tolerance for bottom teeth sliding above the upper dental pad. Slide a finger along the front of the teeth and dental pad, paying attention to the protrusion of either the teeth or dental pad, which helps prompt more visual observation.
Still, I’m also a realist, and understand the costs associated with developing rams and all the other important criteria in ram selection. Taking the chance on a poorly aligned mouth is risky considering this ram is siring the next three- or four-years’ worth of replacement ewes and rams.
Legs and feet
Evaluating hooves for lameness and integrity at least one month prior to ram turnout will allow trimming feet and observing any subsequent discomfort in the weeks after. Alternatively, moving rams to dry or rocky pastures where they can naturally wear off any excess growth on the hoof wall, far enough in advance of breeding, can help separate truly lame sheep from situational discomfort.
An afternoon of cull/keep exercises with the ram battery far enough in advance of the ram sale will allow an accurate inventory of breeding rams and determine the number of rams that need purchased for the upcoming seasons.
I’m often asked the optimal ram to ewe ratio, which I often will respond, “It depends.” It depends on the age of the ram, age of the ewes, breeding environment including pasture size and terrain and whether producers regularly conduct breeding soundness exams.
The standard three rams per 100 ewes is generally appropriate for our region in a mixed-age ram breeding group. Adding more rams when breeding ewe lambs and yearlings is the one major adaptation to consider due to their “silent” breeding activity. If the topography and size of the breeding pasture results in a very dispersed grazing of ewes, increasing the ram-to-ewe ratio from three rams per 100 ewes to four rams per 100 ewes may be warranted. With $2.50 lamb prices, assembling ram-to-ewe ratios that minimize the chance of open ewes should be a priority.
This brings us to the importance of selecting rams that can withstand the rigors of Wyoming’s unforgiving winter breeding environment.
Proper structure of legs and feet is extremely important, and this takes on slightly different meanings in different segments of the industry – commercial and exhibition – overall, it estimates the ability of rams to travel with ease to cover ewes.
Broadly speaking, determining proper structure requires observing the movement of a ram to identify discomfort in legs or restrictions in movement. Looking for proper flex in the knee and the correct tracking of the back legs can help determine discomfort or limitations of movement. Oftentimes, short, rapid steps with clear head movement when the affected hoof touches the ground can suggest stiffness or underlying discomfort.
Unfortunately, a ram exhibiting soreness and stiffness coming out of a drylot environment will not improve in the breeding pasture.
A scoring system for each component of the leg and feet is helpful to select future replacement ewes and rams. In theory, this could entail a repeatable numerical scale system based on visual similarities for a specific component in an animal.
We’ve utilized a hybrid Australian system in some of our ram test evaluations on campus. Specifically, we emphasize the front legs, back legs, pasterns and hock shape.
Finally, no sheep article would be complete without a final plug reminding of the importance of establishing ram selection goals prior to sitting down in the sale arena. The best place to start begins with the current level of production on your operation.
How many pounds of lamb weaned per ewe do you produce? When and what size of lamb do you usually try to market? What grade of wool do you market, does it make adequate staple length? What are your major revenue sources? Do you have too many bum lambs each year? These questions should ultimately help you decide where you want to improve your flock productivity.
Chances are if you don’t know where your operation’s level of production is, genetic improvement becomes more of a chance than choice. Criteria can be quite different between a commercial and seed stock operation, but suffice to say, any criteria must be your own, based on your production environment and ultimately tied to an economic value.
Evaluating the ram battery and selecting the next generation of rams is one of the most important times of the year. Keeping an eye on ram management pre- and post-breeding can decrease ram turnover and keep ram replacement costs to a minimum. Defined criteria related to structural soundness will also help ensure rams can readily breed ewes year after year.
Scheduling time for these ram evaluation events well in advance of breeding will ultimately help sheep producers make fewer last-minute decisions which often make force compromise on the criteria previously discussed.
Wyoming State Ram Sale
For 93 years, Wyoming’s sheep producers have converged in Douglas, for the Wyoming State Ram Sale – a milestone worthy of celebration. Excellent lamb prices will only add to the optimism and excitement that comes with selecting the next rams for the 2021-22 breeding season.
I look forward to seeing many of you at the Ram Sale Seminar, held 3-5 p.m. on Sept. 13 at the Ruthe James Williams Memorial Conference Center at the Wyoming Pioneer Museum on the Wyoming State Fairgrounds as well as catching up on sale day at 11 a.m. Sept. 14 at the Wyoming State Fairgrounds.
Whit Stewart is a professor and the University of Wyoming Extension sheep specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.