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Ewes might do most of the work on a sheep enterprise, but rams have a greater impact on improving flock genetics.

Much of the success we expect from rams is a result of our decision-making and ram management plans, both pre- and post-breeding season.

Breeding ratios

Mature ewes in estrus, or heat, form groups around rams and actively seek the ram’s attention.

In contrast, ewes, lambs and yearling ewes do not congregate in these groups and readily attract rams, which, when run in mixed-age ewe groups with lower ram power, can reduce their chances of getting bred.

Separating yearling, or maiden, ewes into separate breeding groups from older ewes in smaller breeding pastures can ensure more efficient coverage.

Determining ram-to-ewe ratios depends largely on the age of breeding rams and the breeding location. Normally, running rams in minimum groups of two to three will ensure coverage in cases of suboptimal libido and/or physical injury. Two mature rams per 100 ewes or three mature rams per 250 ewes are generally acceptable within a 40-day breeding period.

Mature ram carrying capacity can be increased up to 150 ewes per ram, but the percentage ewes bred on the first 14 days decreases as more breeding pressure is placed on the ram.

Ram lambs should not exceed a ratio of one ram to 30 ewes and generally should not be placed with inexperienced ewe lambs.

Breeding ratios should be adjusted for the size of the breeding pasture, as well.

Large rangeland breeding pastures might require more rams due to greater travel demands. In contrast, when breeding in pens or smaller pastures, fewer rams might be required.

Post-breeding management

The sole criterion for post-breeding management of rams often is out of sight and out of mind. Although warranted, due to the disposition of the rams, what is done post-breeding ultimately determines ram longevity.

Consider the ram’s weight loss, often five to 10 percent of body weight over the course of the breeding season, in addition to the task of thermoregulation from January to May. In many instances, we need to feed our rams better.

A quick, hands-on body condition score should guide the degree of feeding. Take, for example, a 275-pound ram in poor body condition that is only a two on the one-to-five scale post-breeding. Assuming a medium quality meadow hay with eight percent crude protein and corn are the only available ingredients available on the ranch, the ram will require approximately five pounds of hay to maintain current condition.

With an additional 1.5 pounds of energy dense feed, which may include corn, barley, oats or peas, in addition to the five pounds of hay, said ram will regain one-half a body condition score within 67 days.

Also consider that black-faced breeds will likely require more feed post-breeding than white-faced breeds and, where possible, might be separated the first couple months post-breeding.

If longevity of your terminal sires – the black-faced rams – has been an issue, your post-breeding feeding program is the easiest management alteration.

Considering current corn prices are about five to 10 cents, it’s likely feeding six dollars’ worth of corn for 60 days to ensure an additional year of use is much more economical than $600 to $1,000 to replace a ram every year.

This is part two of a two-part article on ram evaluation prior to breeding. Part one can be found in the Oct. 14 Roundup. For additional information or specific ram feeding strategies for your operation, call 307-766-5374 or e-mail questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Near average temperatures and precipitation prevailed across Wyoming for August. This continued for temperatures in September and early October throughout most of Wyoming.

September and early October precipitation was above normal for over half of the state, including most of western Wyoming. Both treds are illustrated in the maps to the right.

The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) map from Oct. 3 shows abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions in the northeast part of the state.

View the current USDM maps at weather.gov/riw/drought and a drought timeline for your county at wrds.uwyo.edu/drought/timelines/timelines.html.

Forecasts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) eight- to 14-day forecast for Oct. 18-24, which was made on Oct. 10, indicates below normal temperatures in western Wyoming, above normal in eastern and normal in the central part of the state.

The precipitation forecast for the same time frame is below normal for eastern Wyoming and normal throughout the rest of the state.

The one-month forecast for October, which was made Sept. 30, indicates below normal temperatures for the entire state and above normal precipitation for nearly the entire state.

To view NOAA’s most recent forecasts, visit cpc.ncep.noaa.gov.

La Niña

The chances of a La Niña occurring in early winter have increased. The effects of La Niña are hard to determine, especially for Wyoming.

That said, typically during a La Niña, the jet stream stays along the U.S.-Canadian border, resulting in wetter than normal winters for western Wyoming and drier, more mild winters for the southeastern part of the state.

To learn more about La Niña, including temperature patterns for every La Niña winter since 1950, read NOAA’s story at goo.gl/kM9aWB.

Ag considerations

Fall is a busy time of year for agriculture around the state. Livestock are being moved from summer pastures to the home-place for weaning and shipping, and corn, sugar beets and other crops are being harvested. 

After these fall tasks are done, take time to review your business plan and priorities. One question to ask is, “How can I increase the resilience of my operation to risk, including weather variability?”

Put your ideas down on paper. List the additional information you need and how or from whom you might find the information.

Featured resources

There are a number of resources available to look at when reviewing your business plan.

University of Wyoming (UW) information on use of grass-legume mixtures to improve forage yield, quality and stand persistence can be found at goo.gl/ieycP8.

Additionally, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service provides information on adaptive management and matching forage demand with forage production at goo.gl/K971Mb.

Remember to plan, monitor, know your alternatives and adapt as needed.

This article was written by UW Extension and USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub Regional Extension Program Coordinator Windy Kelley. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 307-766-2205. The column was reviewed by Wyoming Water Resources Data System Deputy Director Tony Bergantino and Justin Derner of USDA Agricultural Research Service. Dannelle Peck of USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub also reviewed the article.

Ewes might do most of the work on a sheep enterprise, but rams have a greater impact on improving flock genetics.

The excitement of ram sales, impressive pedigrees and performance data are all for nothing if rams don’t perform those 30 to 60 days in the fall. Much of the success we expect from rams is a result of our decision-making and ram management plans, both pre- and post-breeding season.

Here are some helpful reminders.    

Scrotal circumference

  A larger scrotal circumference can be an initial screening tool for producers and is highly correlated to sperm concentration and volume.

A 20 to 30 percent increase in scrotal circumference from spring to fall is to be expected, with greater increases expected for seasonal breeds. For example, a recent study at Montana State University observed an eight-centimeter, 20-percent increase in scrotal circumference in Targhee rams from June to August.

Work done on range rams by Ruttle and Southward (1988) reported rams with a scrotal circumference of less than 30 centimeters usually were classified as unsatisfactory in their annual breeding soundness exams. If rams don’t measure up in the late summer and early fall, they don’t measure up, as can be seen in the table below.

Rams with a larger scrotal circumference, especially as ram lambs and yearlings, generally, will sire earlier maturing, more reproductively efficient ewe lambs.

Breeding soundness exams

There are several other factors that should be considered in breeding soundness exams.

Feet should be trimmed prior to turnout. Inspecting hooves, pasterns, knees and hocks for inflammation and soreness will identify potential problems. Examining while the ram is walking and running can better signal structural issues than stationary examination.

Examine the eyes. They should be clear and free of discharge.

Deworming is warranted if rams were managed on irrigated or sub-irrigated pasture throughout summer.

Rams' front teeth – their incisors – should line up flush with dental pad. Feel upper molars through cheek for excessive wear or abscesses.

The body condition score (BCS) of rams should be a three to four on the five-point scale. Stamina, libido and semen characteristics will decline in under-conditioned rams. Unadapted, excessively fat rams will also struggle with stamina, libido and thermal regulation of testis.

Fat rams sell well at ram sales, yet should be put on a medium-quality grass hay after purchase to ensure rams are adapted to new environments prior to breeding

Palpate the testicles for firmness. They should be similar in firmness in  tone to that of your forearm when making a fist. The scrotum should be free of cuts or lesions. Testicles should be symmetrical with no swelling of the lower portion, which could indicate epididymis.

Examine and palpate the prepuce for ulcers or scabs. Maintaining rams on a diet of less than 16 percent crude protein prior to breeding will help prevent or remediate pizzle rot.

Testicular inflammation or an enlarged epididymis may point to infectious agents such as Brucella ovis. Consulting with your attending veterinarian can help delineate disease versus physical injury.

Semen testing

Begin semen evaluations at least two months in advance of the breeding season. Semen testing rams greater than six years old should be a priority, as these generally show a decline in quality semen characteristics.

Formation of sperm, know as spermatogenesis, lasts 50 days, with an additional 12 to 14 days required for that new sperm to travel through the epididymal duct. Six to eight weeks advanced planning will allow finding a suitable replacement ram if semen quality problems are identified.

Semen abnormalities – for example, low concentration, poor motility or poor morphology – may be attributable to a physiological challenge 50 days prior, including fever, nutrient deficiency, heat stress or shipping stress.

Semen testing too early in the summer, in May or June for example, especially in more seasonal, European-type breeds, may indicate poor specimens when, in fact, these breed types should be retested closer to breeding season.

Semen testing twice within one day, especially for virgin rams where feasible, or 10 days later, might determine if the abnormalities were from environmental factors or permanent infertility.

Also, consider that some rams do not collect well as a result of the collection process and should be evaluated accordingly. 

Consulting with the attending veterinarian can provide additional cull/keep criteria and other abnormalities that might have been experienced during collection.

This is part one of a two-part article on ram evaluation prior to breeding. Read next week’s Roundup for part two of the article. For additional information or specific ram feeding strategies for your operation, call 307-766-5374 or e-mail questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

For row-crop farmers, translating soil test results to management decisions is straightforward –  subtract the soil test nutrient status from an estimate of crop needs and apply the difference as fertilizer. For ranchers, it is more like detective work – trying to uncover reasons that rangelands may not be functioning to their potential.

Ranchers could approach soil testing with this question – is degraded soil constraining range productivity, biodiversity or soil water properties in ways that I can address with the management tools at hand?

Productivity, biodiversity and water properties, including infiltration, holding capacity and resistance to erosion, are functions typically assessed to define rangeland soil health. Each soil type has its own potential for performing these functions. Assessing whether a soil is degraded or is functioning at or near its potential requires several steps.

Identify sampling zones

Identifying sampling zones based on soil type and management history is the first step. Soil type varies with topography and underlying geology.

Soil survey maps can help define zones, but might be too large scale. The drawing to the left shows how a landscape might be split into zones that each have different potential for performing functions and different levels of vulnerability to erosion, compaction and degradation.

Identify reference areas

Reference areas perform soil functions at or near the potential for each zone. They provide benchmarks for assessing management effects. Soil survey information and ecological site descriptions can also provide this type of information.

Ideal reference areas are long-term grazing exclosures but can also be areas that receive less pressure than the sampling zone as a whole.

Field observations

Many soil properties can be assessed directly, without sending samples and your credit card number to a lab.

Fast, simple techniques include soil resistance to penetration with an old hunting knife, since penetrometers are expensive and range soils are usually too hard; soil texture, structure and moisture; surface horizon color and thickness; amount of bare soil; signs of rill and sheet erosion; and visible salt accumulation.

Somewhat more involved techniques include ponded infiltration rate, which correlates well with penetration resistance; soil bulk density, which requires precisely weighing a known volume; soil solution pH and salinity; aggregate stability; calcium carbonate content; plant-available nitrogen and phosphorus content; and others.

These tests, what they mean and where to order supplies are described on my Wyoming Soil Management website, soilmanagement.wordpress.com.

Collect composite samples

Sending samples to a lab can provide an excellent baseline for starting to understand soil health and can help to calibrate your field observations. Some procedures can ensure lab data truly represents soil health.

When sampling, collect at least three composite samples from each zone and associated reference site. The best way is to follow a zig-zag path, placing at least 20 samples into a bucket. In a patchy plant community, collect samples from each patch in proportion to its part of the zone. Thoroughly mix and fill at least one quart zip-lock bag.

The best is to sample the surface horizon, which is most impacted by management. This could vary from two or three inches on slopes or hilltops to a foot or more in swales. Note the average depth for each composite sample. Sampling at constant depth may include subsoil in some samples and not others, giving an inaccurate picture of soil properties.

The best time to sample is mid-summer when everything is dry, as it makes proper handling of samples easier. Disturbance from sampling stimulates decomposition and changes dynamic soil properties, especially with moisture. Variable moisture among samples can skew the results.

Air dry the samples immediately after collecting them. Set them out on a bench or shop floor with the bags rolled open if they’re nearly dry to begin with. If they’re moist, pour them out on a paper plate. They should be dry in 24 to 48 hours. Avoid letting the bags sit out in the sun or in a vehicle. They get very warm and microbes become very active.

Choosing a lab

The standard soil fertility analysis offered by many labs would provide good information. Make sure it includes soil organic matter. The Colorado State University soil testing lab offers a farm and ranch package for $15 or a routine general fertility package for $35. 

Other properties that indicate soil function include total nitrogen and phosphorus content, cation exchange capacity, texture and water holding capacity. Skip or ignore the fertilizer recommendations and just compare each sample to the matched reference sample.

The plant-available nutrients provided by the standard test have a very different meaning for rangelands than for croplands. For crops, they mean you can buy less fertilizer. In healthy, undisturbed soils with perennial plant communities, most plant-available nutrients come from decomposing organic material and are taken up by plants and microbes as fast as they’re released.

So, a healthy soil may have high total nitrogen content, for example, but little plant-available nitrogen. Higher contents of plant-available nutrients indicate disturbance where release rates are exceeding uptake rates. This can be caused by physical disturbance that accelerates decomposition or by disruption of plant/microbe populations that slows uptake. Plant-available nutrients, especially nitrogen, are vulnerable to loss by several pathways, and they indicate a degrading soil system.

Sampling frequency

A subset of the field observations could be done every year and the lab work repeated every five years or so – long enough for management changes to have an effect.

The results of field observations and lab tests might point to needs for deferring grazing to allow plant establishment on vulnerable areas, fencing or herding to change traffic paths or reduce pressure on areas affected by compaction or low organic matter or even active repair of gullies to reduce sediment deposition on low landscape positions.

In future articles, I’ll describe more specifics about translating soil test data to management actions.