Traditional mid-season lambing flocks will commence breeding in the coming weeks.
Many farmers will be purchasing rams during this period with society sales in full swing, while for others attention is turning to ensuring stock rams are primed and fit for breeding.
This is particularly important this year given drought conditions and tight feed availability on many farms. Whichever the situation, there are a number of checks that should be carried.
We revisited advice delivered by head of the Teagasc sheep programme Michael Gottstein to identify the important aspects to consider when carrying out a pre-breeding examination or a ram NCT.
"The examination, which is quick and relatively easy to carry out, is equally worthwhile for breeders before trading rams, as they can identify any faults which may result in rams possibly being returned later in the season, while also helping to attract repeat custom from satisfied buyers," Michael said.
“From an NCT point of view, it is amazing how many buyers and even breeders buy or sell a ram without having done a basic NCT.
"Ninety percent of what you are doing can be done without ever having to turn a ram or disrupt a sheep that an owner may not be happy with.”
Five key areas are highlighted for examination as follows:
For the first area, Michael said: “Timing basically is just that the rams are in good enough condition. Generally, this is not an issue on a lot of pedigree farms, as rams are well fed.
"However, on some commercial farms, rams are not given the same level of attention as ewes and lambs until a couple of weeks before they are going back out to breed, which may be too late to regain enough body condition."
This can significantly affect a ram’s work rate.
“Body condition is related to libido, so rams that are in very poor body condition will have less desire to mate ewes. Rams will spend more time eating rather than looking for ewes in heat, while rams in good body condition will be more active.
"It takes time to put condition on rams and what we see is that rams short on feeding often require 10 weeks’ feeding.
"The target is a body condition score of 3.5 to 4.0, which means you can feel the transverse processes with a good bit of pressure,” Michael said.
The advice in a mid-season flock is therefore to start assessing ram condition ideally in mid-August and at the latest by early September.
Where condition is lacking, then some supplementary feeding in the runup to breeding will help fasttrack rams getting back on track.
Too much condition is also highlighted as a negative, especially in young growing rams that are receiving heavy concentrate supplementation.
“Lambs spend a lot of time lying down, which increases the temperature in their testicles and, in turn, can interfere with semen quality, which we will talk about later.
"It can also affect rumen pH, which can spill over into the blood and affect bone development.
"Lambs that are very heavily fed can sometimes be seen going down on their pasterns, which also affects longevity.’’
In explaining tone, Michael said that an element of this is influenced by body condition and the general wellbeing and appearance of the ram.
As a ram approaches the breeding season or starts mating, it should develop a pink glow on the skin on the inside of his legs and around the testicle area.
This can be best viewed by turning the ram, but it should also be visible from close examination when a ram is standing.
For commercial buyers, the main emphasis is generally on characteristics that will deliver in terms of carcase quality, conformation, height, ease of lambing, etc, compared with a show ring setting where there is a greater emphasis placed on non-commercial attributes such as looks, size of head, etc, which do not usually directly deliver for commercial farmers.
Michael said: “Generally, from a ram carcase point of view, the most valuable parts are basically your racks and your loins.
"If you break a lamb up inside in the factory, your shoulder and the area from there up is probably only worth about 20% of the carcase.
"Length is worth an awful lot more money than legs or shoulder; and shoulders and legs are to some extent what’s going to give lambing difficulty.”
Keeping this in mind, Michael advises selecting a ram with good loin length and a reasonably long, slender neck, which is not too thick but at the same time wide enough to give depth going into the eye muscle region.
For the head, the areas highlighted were signs of fighting and possible infections or orf.
Entropion (turned-in eyelids) is raised as becoming a greater problem in pedigree breeding and, as it can be inherited, the recommendation is to look for scarring around the eyes of the animal (denotes if a stitch or clamp may have been used).
Caseous lymphadenitis (CLA), a contagious skin disease that establishes in a sheep’s lymph system, is becoming a rising problem, with Michael advising farmers to rub your hand along an animal’s neck (most lymph glands located), brisket area and tail head to look for characteristic signs of swollen lumps, abscesses or scaring as a result.
For teeth, check an animal’s mouth to make sure that the teeth meet the pad.
“Also, what a lot of people don’t do is to have a look around the side at the molar teeth [rub your hand along the outside of side of mouth] so if you have abscesses or gaps here, it may be something to look out for.
"The teeth are not probably as important if you are buying the ram for producing terminal lambs, but are very important if you are keeping replacements,” Michael said.
Toes, legs and feet
“In terms of legs and feet, lameness is hereditary. Obviously, all sheep can become lame due to management, but some sheep are more susceptible.
‘‘So, if you have sheep that have consistently overgrown hooves or going lame, it is obviously a bad idea to keep and breed from them. I think with rams we need to be very strict and not be keeping replacements of rams that need treatment regularly,” Michael said.
He advises to look at the ram’s feet for foot placement. Rubbing and checking the brisket for sores can highlight lameness issues that may not be easily identifiable at first.
Michael stresses that the reproductive part of the ram is something that farmers and breeders need to be sure is working.
“We want two testicles that are evenly sized. They should be firm. The same kind of consistency as a clenched bicep is what you’re looking for without lumps or bumps, sponginess or a lot of stuff above the testicles, which may be a sign of a hernia."
Testicles are located outside an animal’s body to regulate temperature. On a warm day, testicles move down in the scrotum and, on a cold day, they move closer to an animal’s body.
This mechanism of regulating temperature is vital in a ram’s reproductive organs, as semen is very temperature sensitive.
“An increase of even half a degree for a 12-hour period is enough to knock the fertility of a ram. There are lots of people that talk about rams getting sick and when they give an antibiotic that he’ll be infertile.
"The antibiotic has no effect on fertility. By the time the ram is sick, your damage is done. The degree to which the temperature rises influences how long he is going to be infertile for.
"For example, if a ram’s temperature increases by 1C to 1.5C for 24 hours, we can be pretty sure any semen he has will be worthless.
"It takes five to seven weeks for semen to form, so if a ram runs a temperature today, it will be at least this long once he recovers that he will be able to impregnate ewes,” Michael said.
Another area of the reproductive organs to check is the bottom of the scrotum where the epididymis is located.
“These appendages are like table tennis balls or large marbles and are very important, as they are the semen store for a ram when waiting for ejaculation.
"If a ram doesn’t have the two epididymis, he is effectively infertile. These should again be evenly sized, free from lumps or bumps and have a rubbery feeling to them.”
The last area in the ram NCT is the penis. Michael says that in a sales yard or with ram lambs, this should not be as big an issue as with older rams.
“There are lots of rams that may give you a perfect semen sample, but they may not be able to impregnate a ewe because their penis is too short, broken or going off to the side.
"This is generally only an issue with older rams that have had an injury and it’s the 10% of the test I would maybe forego for ram lambs rather than maybe annoying breeders in a sales yard turning up rams.
"But, in older sheep, what you are looking for are signs of infection or injuries. Extend the penis and, at the top, there is a little worm-like appendage that basically spreads the semen. It’s not a big issue if it’s not there, but it may be a sign of an injury.”
Michael concludes by saying that it is not just beneficial to the buyer to carry out a quick NCT, it is also beneficial to the seller in safeguarding the breeding credentials in the flock.