Ram Selection: A Critical Decision
by Richard Cobb
A successful sheep program is a combination of many parts. Management, disease control and merchandising are examples of some of the parts. Ram selection is a critical decision that can affect a flock for years and for generations. To be successful a ram cannot be expected to solve all your problems but rather to receive help from you in all the above areas.
Often times we will buy a ram for whatever reason and then try and merchandise the lambs that he sires. I think that to be successful we must reverse this order and first have an idea of what we want to produce or with time an existing program that we can fit the ram within the system. And, once the lambs are born, we must be prepared to manage and merchandise them as well as we can.
What you want to produce is up to you. That is one thing that is wonderful about the sheep business. We have the genetics available to us to produce whatever you want. Big show sheep, hot house lambs, market lambs of 100 or 160 pounds, show wether lambs, sheep with higher quality fleeces, Star system multiple lambing ewes, and any number of other products. We are not limited in what we can produce.
What you do produce may be determined by many factors. Available markets, cash flow, competitive spirit to mention just a few. You can and often do change your product but it is important to have one in mind when you select a ram to sire it.
Your ewe flock has a tremendous affect on what you can produce. Ideally they are similar in breeding either by breed or by crosses. If they are similar they can be expected to produce lambs that will perform alike. If they are different they can be expected to produce various types of lambs so that you will be unable to predict performance. On an individual lamb basis both the ram and ewe will produce an equal amount to the genetic makeup of a lamb. Because he should sire many lambs the ram actually has a greater affect on your lamb crop than do your ewes. Therefore to buy a ram that will compliment or change your ewes you must first make an evaluation of the females that you have. Are they big ewes? Are they structurally sound? What do you think their strongest points are? Their weakest? Are your ewes on an accelerated program? Do your ewes have any genetic weaknesses that you must avoid in selecting a ram?
If you feel that you can make an honest evaluation of your ewe flock then go ahead. If not, then contact a shepherd that you have confidence in and ask him or her to evaluate them. Be prepared to pay for this service and also be prepared to be surprised with the evaluation. Remember, not everyone may hold your ewe flock in such high regard as you do. If you disagree with the evaluation don't get mad; get another opinion.
Armed with an evaluation of your ewes, and knowing what type of lambs you want to produce and there what type of ram you need then you can move onto the next step in ram selection and that is locating rams that are for sale.
If you have a commercial flock you can usually find the ram of your dreams within a 50-mile radius. Buying locally has many advantages. First, you ram ill already be acclimated to the weather in the area and shouldn't have any fertility problems associated with regional changes. Secondly, the person who sold you the sheep is within as easy access incase you have problems and thirdly, you may make a new friend that can help you in the future. If you are involved with the star system then I would only buy from other star system breeders and then only buy fall born rams. I would visit the farm you want to purchase from and evaluate the entire flock. If you do have genetic problems in your ewe flock then ask specific questions related to that problem. If the shepherd is evasive in answering your questions about the genetic problem then do not buy from him. Check also for conditions within the flock that could be contagious to your flock. Foot rot is number one in this area. If you don not have foot rot then you want to avoid it if at all possible. Plan to buy you ram long enough before the breeding season so that you can quarantine the ram upon arrival at your farm. In practice this is seldom done but is an excellent management tool for evaluation of the ram and particularly for disease control.
The purchase of a purebred ram can be a more difficult task. First, check locally for the same reasons above. Many times a good ram can be found locally but are passed over because the buyer will feel that he needs other bloodlines to compete with the local producer. The same rules apply, visit the farm, talk with the seller, evaluate his entire program and ask to see the parents of the ram in question. This should also be done by the commercial buyer as well. A ram will tend to produce females like his mother and therefore if she is a big strong structurally sound ewe then that is important. If the seller refuses to show you the dam or if she is somewhere else and can't be located then you can bet he doesn't want you to see her and you should reconsider buying the ram. If he doe show you the ewe and she doesn't look as if she could have produced such an excellent son then look at the sire of the ram. If he is a complete opposite of the dam then the ram you are interested in can be expected to produce a cross selection of lambs. We see this often in sheep breeding, the mating of opposite types to produce an animal that looks one way but because of his breeding can be expected to produce any kind of lamb. These type rams are not a good bet and should be avoided as well. Also, if possible and particularly if you plan to keep replacement daughters by this ram, check the udder of his mother. Teat size and placement are highly heritable as are pendulous udders. We as an industry have not paid any attention to udder problems and we really should. Do not buy a ram out of a bad uddered ewe.
If you cannot find the ram you want locally then it is very easy to buy a ram anywhere in the country. We really have a very good network for doing so. My advice would be to attend a sale or visit a farm or ranch wherever you want or call and have someone else pick out your ram. This is easy to do but remember that at a sale and over the phone what you see is what you get. If you are really serious and willing to spend a deal of money then it is certainly in your best interest to attend the sale yourself. While there talk with sellers of the rams you are interested in and ask them any questions you think are necessary and evaluate their answers. Remember if they are evasive then maybe you should reconsider. If you do decide to bid on a ram then set a dollar figure and stick to it. I know that it can be difficult to do and I know from personal experience that it can be tough to buy on a mail bid for someone. When you do buy a ram then plan on quarantining him and watch for foot rot and sore mouth this time. Remember the ram has just come from an environment with sheep from all over the country and he could have been exposed to any and everything.
Regardless if you are buying a commercial or registered ram try and buy the most structurally sound that you can. Perhaps the first place to evaluate him is in his testicles. Rams with small testes should not be considered for purchase. Your ram should be sound in his mouth. There is room for personal preference in this area. I am not a critical as many people if a ram is a little rough as I have seen many fat that are a little rough. I do discriminate against a parrot mouth sheep and a ram that is overshot so that you can stick a finger between the teeth and gum. Structural integrity as it relates to the skeleton of the ram is very important. The ram should be as strong and leveled topped as possible considering breed differences. Strength of feet and legs is important. Remember, you will not get a perfect on but avoid post-legged sheep as their breeding life can be cut short by this problem. Your ram should be masculine and should look like the breed he is.
In summary, I would advise people to decide what they need in a ram before looking at one. I recommend that you select as sound a ram as possible. If you are able, evaluate both parents and quarantine your ram upon arrival at your farm. Happy hunting!