Ram Health, Proper Semen Handling Leads to Increased Conception Rates

When it comes to getting your flock bred, having reproductively sound ewes is just 50% of the equation. It is also imperative to have rams that are structurally and reproductively sound, and as an increased number of producers are moving to advanced technologies like A.I. and embryo transfer, knowing how to properly handle semen is of upmost importance. 

Keeping your rams healthy is vital to their fertility and your overall breeding success, both when it comes to natural service and using artificial insemination. This is especially true when you are breeding or collecting semen during this time of year in the heat. Heat stress can cause infertility, leading to conception challenges. 

Make sure your rams are kept in an area that offers good shade and air flow, and even better, keep them in a climate-controlled area, if possible. Be sure they have plenty of fresh, clean cold water in front of them at all times. 

Greg Beatty, owner of Beatty’s Club Lambs in Indiana, Pennsylvania, has studied the art and science of collecting rams, shipping semen and getting ewes bred. He ships as much fresh chilledsemen out as any sheep producer in the country, from coast-to-coast, and said his success lies in the care the rams are given. 

“No one is more OCD about ram health than we are. We change their water buckets at least two times a day. If you won’t stick your head in the water bucket, it shouldn’t be in front of the ram,” Beatty said. 

In addition to fresh, clean water, Beatty houses his rams in individual pens in a temperature-controlled barn to reduce their chances of stress – heat or otherwise. He also keeps them on a concise schedule, feeding them every 12 hours, and making sure they are sheared about every three weeks, again adding to their comfort.  

Since the breeding season starts earlier in the year on the West Coast, the rams start getting jumped on an artificial vagina in March and are jumped at least five times a week through June. 

“Sixty days before collection time is when they are making semen, so we like to get those bucks cleaned out. We ship semen to California where they start breeding earlier, so we start jumping them on the AV, getting them used to the process,” he said. 

Keeping the rams comfortable and healthy is a must. But it is also important to check their health and give them a breeding soundness exam (BSE), especially if you are using them directly on the ewes and not examining their semen under a scope like you would be at collection time. With a BSE, you will want to have a veterinarian evaluate their semen quality, concentration and motility. You should also make sure everything feels right with the scrotum.  

A physical exam should also be part of the BSE. Make sure your rams are not too thin, so they have enough stamina to breed the ewes; but make sure they are not over conditioned either, so they will have the energy they need. A body condition score of 3 to 3.5 is ideal. Ensure they are sound on their feet and legs, so they will be able to comfortably move around the pasture and mount the ewes, and finally, check that they are free of any pinkeye and sore mouth. 

Once you are ready to turn your rams out to breed, it is important that you have enough rams to cover the number of ewes you need bred. Under normal conditions, an older ram can be expected to settle an average of 40 ewes, while a younger ram might only be able to get 15-20 head bred. In drought conditions, you might need to reduce the number of ewes you put with each ram, to make sure they get serviced and settled.  

When it comes to semen handling, Beatty said the sheep industry has made great strides in the technology of using semen during recent years. However, he still suggests using only fresh or fresh chilled semen on donors since frozen semen still has the shortest shelf-life. He said most A.I. technicians will adjust their breeding times depending on if they are using fresh, fresh chilled or frozen semen. 

“We’re just trying to learn from year to year and trying to make the best choices. The whole industry has advanced a lot. Our success has really increased, and we are having more luck with frozen semen, as we are learning more and the technology is more advanced,” he said. 

One way to help make sure your flock, including your ram power, stays reproductively sound is by providing a good plane of nutrition like DuraFerm® Sheep Concept•Aid® HEAT®, a highly fortified, free-choice vitamin and mineral supplement for sheep specifically designed to help prevent heat stress during temperatures of 70 degrees or hotter. 

DuraFerm Sheep Concept•Aid HEAT contains organic trace minerals for improved bioavailability and performance. Amaferm®, a precision-based prebiotic impacts intake, feed digestibility and nutrient absorption for amplified breeding performance. The HEAT package helps regulate the animal’s core body temperature, adding support in heat stress situations and also includes garlic to deter insects. 

Keeping your rams stress-free at breeding time will help with their reproductive health, leading to more ewes bred and settled. With increased fertility, your flock will see an increase in conception rates, meaning more lambs, leading to more profit. Get your rams breeding ready with fresh water, good nutrition and reduced stress and strengthen your stock and your flock with the Amaferm advantage. 

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