On sheep farms that start lambing ewes from mid-March onwards, the rams will be turned out to serve breeding females around 20 October.
Therefore, as of this weekend, the breeding season is around five weeks away for mid-season lambing flocks.
Flock owners should be focusing on the physical condition of breeding rams, both those recently purchased at society sales or direct from farms, as well as mature rams retained from last year.
Taking the time to check the ram physically, as well as building body condition, will be the difference between a successful or a disastrous breeding season.
Do not leave it until loading the ram on the trailer for turning out to ewes before you check feet, testicles, teeth and body condition.
It can take six weeks for a ram’s semen production to recover following a physical problem or illness, which is why physically checking rams by this weekend is important.
It is too late leaving it until the day the ram goes out to ewes. At this stage, options will be limited for replacing a potentially sub-fertile ram.
Checking tups within the next few days means there is time to replace rams if necessary, as well as addressing other issues.
When it comes to physically assessing the fitness of a ram, outlined are five checks that farmers can carry out on-farm, which have been recommended by some of the vets working with the programme farms.
1 Body and muscle tone
Rams will expend a lot of energy over a short period of time when breeding starts. Therefore, flock sires need to be carrying plenty of condition before they begin breeding.
Handle rams along the ribs, spine, hind quarters and back legs to check the level of fat cover present, along with muscle tone.
While body condition score (BCS) will vary between breeds, rams should be in BCS 3.5-4 before breeding starts.
This means that the animal should be slightly fat. When handling the animal, it should be possible to feel ribs and bones in the hindquarter with moderate to firm pressure applied.
Rams that are under-fleshed (Below BCS 3.5) are less equipped to cover large groups of ewes and may become sub-fertile. Rams that are overfat (BCS 4+) will have a reduced libido.
To build body condition, make sure rams are grazing on good grass up until breeding. Offering 0.5kg/day of concentrate will also build condition.
This will also make it easy to monitor the change in BCS over the coming weeks as rams come forward to feed.
Finally, making sure parasite control is up-to-date will ensure rams maintain BCS over the autumn period.
A healthy ram should have a body temperature between 38°C and 39.5°C. High temperatures will indicate some form of infection is present, which will affect the animal’s health and fertility.
3Teeth and eyes
Check the animal’s teeth are correctly positioned and line up properly with the pad on the upper jaw.
Next, run the hands back and forward along the outside of the jaws, feeling for abnormal molar teeth and any lumps.
The ram’s eyes should be bright with no sign of discharge. Bloodshot eyes are a sign that the animal is bothered by fluke. The inside of the eyelid should be bright pink, not anaemic.
Mobility is key to getting ewes served, so check the ram’s feet. The sidewalls of each foot should be 2mm-3mm longer than the softer sole of the foot.
If this is not the case, rams will be prone to lameness, particularly on land which is hard or has a high stone content.
Keep this in mind when paring feet. Foot trimming should only be carried out as necessary. Do not over-trim feet and do not draw blood when trimming.
The ram’s testicles should be firm and symmetrical. When handling the scrotum, the testicles should feel similar to a flexed bicep.
Check there are no lumps on either testicle and fluid within the scrotum should be easy to feel, as should the epididymis at the bottom of the scrotum.
Testicles for a working, fruitful ram should exceed 32cm in diameter for ram lambs and measure at least 36cm diameter for mature sires.
Examine the penis for lumps and warts. The vermiform appendix, a worm like attachment that helps spread sperm in the ewe’s cervix, should be easily seen.
Managing a new ram on farm
Where a new ram has been recently purchased, the animal should be quarantined once it arrives on-farm. The quarantine period should last at least three weeks.
This safeguards against bringing new diseases on to the farm which could then be transmitted to breeding ewes or other flock sires.
Within 24 to 48 hours of arrival on-farm, the new rams should be brought up-to-date with your flock’s health programme for internal and external parasites, as well as vaccinations.
Taking a few faecal egg counts before and after parasite treatments is also recommended, in order to show up any potential resistance to wormers.
Also, rams will most likely have been eating concentrates prior to sale, so continue feeding animals for a short period after purchase.
Concentrate levels can be tapered down over a week to two-week period. By gradually reducing concentrate, this avoids sudden rumen upsets or loss of body condition before the start of the breeding period.