The spring fruits of your fall labor
After a sweltering summer, the self-described “Sheep Country” of Texas was finally muddy last week, and overnight a green hue returned to the landscape. While more fall moisture is definitely welcome, this timely rain arrived at a critical time to promote cool season grass and forb growth leading into winter. This also coincides with breeding for most Texas sheep and goat producers and lambing for those who intend to capture seasonal price spikes. Regardless of your production cycle, this nutritional uptick for livestock on pasture will have significant benefits on your lamb and kid crops, even if they are six months away from arrival. However, producers of small ruminants need to monitor the condition of their herd or flock closely to maximize the reproductive output of their animals.
If you are a long-time follower of this column or our AgriLife Extension program, it is clear that we are big proponents of body condition scoring ewes and nannies on a regular basis (at least two to three times a year). Prior to breeding is a critical time to ensure this somewhat tedious task gets accomplished. Condition scores in small ruminants are on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being extremely thin and 5 being obese. Most sheep are between a 2.5-4; animals with scores outside this range need a closer look in order to identify the potential causes. Some immediate management decisions may be required… even if the cause is just an overly generous feeding program!
A closer look at your ewes and nannies also provides an opportunity to cull any that will not be able to properly raise offspring. Check for teeth issues that can lead to poor nutritional intake and any residual udder problems that have remained from the previous lambing. Capturing the condition score of your mature females may allow you to take advantage of flushing or keep you from wasted expense on this added feed supplement.
“Flushing” is a term that describes increasing the nutrition of the herd ~3 weeks prior to and ~3 weeks after exposure to a male to increase ovulation rate, and ultimately lead to more offspring. If ewes or nannies are in a body condition score (BCS) of 2.5 to 3.0, flushing can be highly effective. However, if the females BCS average 3.5 or more, there will be no added benefit to flush them. A typical flushing ration would include a high-energy concentrate, e.g. corn, delivered at about 1 lb. per head per day. Recent rains should increase pasture quality, so perhaps starting at ½ lb. per head per day is more advantageous, but pasture quality and optimal flushing ration could vary by operation.
Not to be taken for granted, rams and billies also need extra attention as breeding season approaches. A Breeding Soundness Exam (BSE) for your stud battery is always a good idea to ensure rams and billies are fertile and in the proper condition. This is a MUST if you plan to single-sire mate. There are several extension resources available online about how to perform a BSE. In short, you want to check for abnormalities in the testicles that may indicate the presence of a disease and/or infertility, evaluate the condition of the ram (3.5 is usually about ideal), and ensure that structurally (predominantly feet and legs) the male is capable of traveling the pasture and covering females. Another important component is to collect a semen sample to test for sperm motility and morphology. We suggest contacting your local veterinarian for assistance with this.
Mature/experienced rams and billies will usually expend less energy mating than younger males, who will often service females more than necessary. For these reasons, the recommended breeding ratio of females to males is usually around 40:1 for mature males and 25:1 for younger (2 years old or less) rams/billies. The breeding ratio may need to be adjusted based on your pasture size. If you have interest in monitoring sire and dam pairings, a marking harness with a colored crayon will show which females were mounted. While using DNA technology is the most accurate method for determining parentage of offspring resulting from multi-sire mating, using marking harnesses is certainly a cost-effective approach. Daily recording of these colorful “marks” can also allow you to estimate an approximate lambing date for the ewe. Any experienced shepherd will tell you, utilizing marking harnesses with younger rams usually provides a good chuckle.
Here in Texas, we have the largest sheep and goat populations of any state, but we also struggle with having comparatively low kid and lamb crop percentages. Predation is absolutely a big component of this, but sometimes tunnel vision causes us to focus on predators as being the sole reason for the underwhelming output from our herds and flocks.
Often, there are other management issues that are significantly compromising the lamb or kid crop. To wean a lot of lambs, you need to start with a lot. The first step to a higher percentage is proper management prior to and during the breeding season. Going in to breeding, all females need to be capable of conceiving, carrying, and raising offspring.
All males need to be fertile and in the proper condition to endure a successful breeding season. This discussion is timely as most producers tend to breed in the fall in synch with seasonal reproductive tendencies of small ruminants. With that said, I encourage you to look into strategies to alter the timing of breeding slightly to capture price advantages found during times of lower supply. That however is a topic for another day. For now, I hope you enjoy the rain and cooler weather and here’s to a profitable 2021 kid and lamb crop!
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at email@example.com or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.