September 5, 2008

Don't try to save money on rams

When times are tough in sheep farming, it's very easy to try to save money on rams. Farmers either don't buy any rams or use the old ones they have for another season, or they give each ram they have more ewes to mate. Then there's the option of swapping or borrowing rams from neighbours or buying a $20 special at the end of season ram sale that would be better fed to the dogs.

Last season was very tough for New Zealand sheep farming profits but prospects are looking much better so farmers should look at rams bought this season as a very good investment for the future. Now is the time to be planning your ram purchases for next season and not leave it to last minute cull ram sales.

The most important point to remember is that rams have two jobs to do. The first is to get ewes pregnant and the second is to improve the flock for future generations. The old saying that 'the ram is half the future flock' is still true, and the way to work out how much to pay for a ram is to spread his purchase price across the number of his progeny that you'll wean. So if a ram mated to 40 ewes ends up with you getting 60 lambs to weaning, then multiply 60 store lambs by $40 and that's $2400!". This is the sort of money people pay for stud rams but it let's you see that even they are too low.

So this fact shows that the way to reduce the price per offspring is to allow the ram to produce more offspring by mating him to more ewes. The traditional mating group of 40-50 ewes for a mature ram and 20-30 for a ram lamb are far too low. A really good fit ram will easily mate 100 ewes, and a young fit well-grown ram lamb will easily manage 30-50 ewes. In fact, breeders have put really top genetic rams to 400 ewes for one cycle and they have managed to cover most of them.

The key point to remember is that you get what you pay for, and paying miserable prices will not get a ram with top genetics to ensure flock improvement, neither will it get a healthy animal to get all the ewes pregnant in the first cycle.

Small farmers hang on to their rams for far too long and expect them to perform for another season with footrot, scrotal mange, lice and worms. These rams, often former pet lambs, spend the summer under in the shade and never put on any weight and should be culled. Once they come out of the mating paddock they are forgotten about till next autumn. It's not surprising that they break down when the physical challenge of next mating hits them. Sheep farmers with small flocks can easily share a top genetic ram either by merging their ewes with neighbours or rotating the ram for a cycle on each farm. The delayed lambing date will not be as critical as in a large commercial flock, and the chances are that the later lambing will hit better weather and increase lamb survival.

Some ram breeders have been selecting for Facial Eczema tolerance for many years, and now others have started selecting for sheep resistance to internal parasites and for freedom from dags. Getting rid of dagging and drenching (in that order) would certainly reduce the workload and cost of farming sheep in New Zealand.

The best option is to discuss your ram needs with a recognised stud breeder and see if the genetics of their flock will suit your breeding objectives. Visit their flock and take time to look at all the records and then the sheep – in that order. It's a much better option than bidding at a ram sale where there may be very little information available.

Full details of where these breeders are can be obtained phoning Sheep Improvement Ltd (SIL) on 0800-745-435, Email:

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