Breeding season is here and if you want to add lambs to your flock next year you are going to need a ram. Timing your lambing to suit your schedule requires you to keep a ram separate until you’re ready to introduce him to your ewes. Keep in mind, rams of different ages have different feed requirements for maintenance and must be housed with companions as they too, need a ‘flock’ to keep stress low and maintain a calm disposition. Keeping rams and ewes separate requires maintaining two different groups most of the year. A little creativity may be necessary in supporting your ram(s) on your small farm.
Keeping one ram may be your only option for your farm size and budget. If your goals include producing replacement ewes and/or breeding stock, a high-quality ram is essential. High quality rams aren’t cheap and need to be replaced every year or two to avoid inbreeding. If your goal is market lambs, a terminal sire can be retained for several years. In either instance, acquire a wether ‘buddy’ to be his companion. The wether can stick around for years, even after you have had to replace your single ram. Wether companions don’t have the hormonal drive to fight, so they are suitable as a singleton companion for your ram. The wether can also be conveniently kept with your ewes if you’re ‘in between’ rams.
If you have more space and resources to accommodate a small group of rams, frequent replacements aren’t necessary. With unrelated rams, you can breed small groups of ewes to each ram and then switch breeding groups successively each year to maintain genetic diversity in your flock.
Some atypical ram management options include but aren’t limited to: Purchasing or retaining a meat lamb to breed then butchering him; sharing a ram with another small producer; leasing a ram; or keeping your ram with your ewes most of the year. Quality could be an issue with using a meat lamb as a sire of your future lamb crop. If you are very low on funds or are incapable of managing two groups, or if your goal is strictly meat lambs, it is a feasible option. Leasing a ram is a cost-effective option ‘if’ it is accessible. Leasing a ram allows a small farm to operate without the management responsibility involved with a ram or group of rams. A mutual and trustworthy relationship between the predominant farm and the lessee must exist for the arrangement to work for both parties. There are obvious biosecurity and liability risks that are shared between the two farms. An agreement (written or otherwise) might be of benefit to both parties. Another less common alternative is keeping the ram with the ewes from the time of introduction during breeding season through lambing and sometimes even lactation. The ram could be removed around weaning and put with the group of ram lambs until they are sold off or the ewes are ready to be rebred. There are obvious drawbacks to this approach and a ram with a suitable attitude is absolutely necessary for human, ewe and lamb safety.
All of these alternatives to keeping a working ram(s) have their advantages and disadvantages. Some of these options may be the only reasonable choice for some small farms due to financial/resource availability. Work closely with a mentor and established flock, talk with other small shepherds, share experiences, and experiment with different ram management options to find the best fit for your farm.
By: Allison Rudd, Oxberry Farm, EAPK Member