With the breeding season just around the corner attention, at this time of year on the sheep farm will turn to flock assembly.
Rachel Megarrell, a beef and sheep adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) said: “It is essential to ensure that rams have been well prepared for the tupping period to ensure that he can perform to his reproductive potential.”
“Is it advisable to check your rams at least 10-12 weeks ahead of the start of the breeding season.”
She said farmers should carry out a full ‘MOT’/ ‘NCT’ on breeding rams to determine fitness and suitability for tupping.
“This will mean you can detect any potential issues allowing time to correct them or to source a replacement if necessary.”
Ram fertility can be affected by a number of things, for example, condition score, increased temperature caused by an infection, poor disease status and condition of the feet.
Body Condition Score (BCS)
Condition scoring is a standard handling technique to assess how much muscle and fat, breeding sheep are carrying at a particular time.
It has been proved that over fat and thin ewes do not perform to their full potential and the same principle will apply to breeding rams.
Body condition scoring is an integral part of the shepherd’s routine throughout the year and is particularly important pre-breeding.
How to assess BCS
Megarrell added: “Body condition score is assessed by handling the animal over and around the backbone, in the area of the loin behind the last rib and the tail head. Using the fingertips, firstly feel the degree of sharpness or roundness of the lumbar vertebrae.
Secondly, feel and assess the prominence and degree of cover over the horizontal processes. Then assess by feel the amount of muscle and fat under the horizontal processes, by the ease with which the fingers pass under the ends of these bones.
Finally, assess the eye muscle and its fat cover, by pressing the fingers into the area between the vertical and horizontal processes.
“Taking these assessments into account, it is possible to score the animal on a scale of 0-5, using half scores as intermediate points along the scale.”
“A body condition score of 4.0 for lowland rams at mating is ideal. Remember that rams will need a lot of reserves during the six to eight-week mating period and therefore some supplementary feeding in the run-up to the tupping season might be required.”
“Assessment of condition should be made approximately eight weeks prior to tupping, so that rams in poorer condition can be fed a good quality ration to increase body condition, however, the key is to have rams that are fit and ready to work and not excessively fat.”
Check for a broken mouth, under or overshot jaw and mouth abscesses, all of which will affect the ram’s ability to feed effectively, which will lead to rapid loss of condition.
Rams should be subject to the same treatments as ewes for clostridial diseases, worms and fluke.
Check the ram’s brisket for sores are these will need treatment well ahead of fitting a harness.
Feet and locomotion
Healthy feet are extremely important if the ram is to perform successfully.
Overgrown hooves can be pared back if they are affecting mobility however, it is now widely recognised that excessive foot paring is not necessary and poor trimming technique can lead to the formation of granulomas, misshapen hooves and the introduction of infection.
Rams need to be monitored carefully for signs of footrot. Foot-rot vaccination should be considered for rams and requires two primary doses followed by a booster vaccination every six months.
Ram mobility is important, check the joints for signs of swelling or excess fluid and make sure that he can move with a free gait as he will spend the majority of his time moving through the flock seeking out ewes that are in season.
“When selecting or culling rams many of the points that apply to ewes such as teeth, age and condition are relevant , however, special attention should be given to the reproductive area. “
Testicles should be even in size, firm and resilient to pressure and able to move freely within the scrotum, she added.
Larger testicles indicate increased fertility. The prepuce should be checked for ulceration and for free movement of the penis through the orifice of the prepuce.
“The epididymis (sperm store) should be well defined with no lumps. If there is any doubt on ram fertility contact your local vet to semen sample to check that the rams are fertile.”
“Paying attention to the health and well-being of your breeding rams is crucial, the temptation is to forget about them after they have been removed from the ewes, however, rams need to be carefully managed all year-round to ensure that they remain in optimum condition. Do not underestimate the importance of this – remember the ram is half of your flock.”