Ram buying guide part one: Choose the man not the ram

A leading sheep consultant is urging farmers to adopt a more holistic approach to ram buying this season by identifying a breeder that fits their criteria, rather than simply picking a ram.

Independent sheep consultant Catherine Nakielny says it is a philosophy she adheres to on her home farm in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire.

“The genetics and the ram have such a big impact on the flock but a lot of people don’t put in the time and effort to source a ram.

See also: How to interpret sheep EBVs

“If you are going to buy a piece of machinery you want someone who can come back and service it, who is reliable. So why approach it any differently with rams?”

As rams make up half of the flock’s genetics, she says it is vital to recognise the long-term impact these relatively few animals have on the sustainability of a business.

“With a maternal ram it is really important you get the best traits you can because he can have an impact within the flock for the next 10-12 years.”

Dr Nakielny says producers should identify breeders with “sensible” breeding goals, good forage-based feeding systems and robust flock health.

She says a good starting point is to identify flocks that are performance recording.

“Rams really need to be above the breed average and making progress year on year. But it is more than recording. Farmers also need to manage rams in a sensible way.

“If you are selling lambs off grass you don’t want to buy rams from someone who is pushing them on creep. Ideally the more commercially run a pedigree flock is the better, because it is going to weed out poor performers. But you still want a decent grown ram.

“Think: will they carry on growing and maturing on my farm where they come from?”

The next step is to chat with your vet and highlight key health priorities, she says.

“Find out if they are MV-accredited and how they manage lameness and foot-rot, for example.”

The benefit of buying rams in this way is you develop a relationship with a breeder, she adds.

“You can identify a ram breeder that has an interest in how those animals are going to perform and understands what you want to achieve.”

Dr Nakielny says two-way feedback will help progress the genetics of breeder and buyer’s flocks and will enable both to establish common goals.

“If you buy a ram from a flock which is improving its genetics by 2% every year and you are going back year on year and are paying the same prices then it is a way of bringing in that genetic gain for free.”

Sourcing rams from one breeder also reduces disease risks and saves time and sometimes money, says Dr Nakielny.

“By going direct to a breeder you know what you have to pay, which makes life a little easier, especially if you have a budget. At sales sometimes rams sell at silly prices, and buyers get carried away in the heat of the moment, particularly if there’s only a few lots left and they need one desperately.”

Taking this approach doesn’t mean farmers have to stop buying rams at market, explains Dr Nakielny.

“If you know what breeders will be selling at auction you can talk to them first and go visit their farm. A good ram breeder should be happy for you to visit the flock.”

The risk with not doing your homework before you arrive at auction is that you’re buying based on pot luck. “Rams could be good, bad, they could live, they could die.”

Case study: Shaun Hall Jones, Llanybydder, Carmarthenshire

Sheep farmer Shaun Hall Jones, who runs a flock of 400 pure Lleyn ewes and 735 commercial cross ewes in Llanybydder, started buying rams direct three years ago with the aim of finding rams to better suit his production system.

“I felt I was paying for animals that were reared in systems that didn’t complement our system. It would take the rams time to readjust and sometimes they couldn’t cope with the pressure they were put under,” explains Mr Jones, who farms up to 335m above sea-level aims to finish all his spring-born lambs off forage before the new year.

Mr Jones says he starts his selection process by looking for flocks with high health status and good EBVs. Those monitoring faecal egg counts (FECs) and for the myostatin gene are preferable too, he adds.

“I will then contact the breeder to arrange a date to visit the farm. I will ensure there is sufficient time to have a tour of the farm and view the stock. I believe it is important to speak to the farmer, get an understanding of the farming enterprise and what are the breeding goals for the flock.”

Mr Jones says asking the breeder questions about their vaccination policy and feeding regime enables him to make an informed decision whether the ram is suitable for his farm.

He says the added benefit is he is able to build a relationship with the breeder and question them as much as possible.