I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said it: “A good ram is too good to pass up.” This statement comes as a result of many years of breeding sheep, but its meaning takes a bit of explanation. In short, it’s based on both the goals of our flock and the way that breeding season works.
Although rams can run with the ewes year-round and breed them willy-nilly throughout the year, it is most common for shepherds to separate their ram and ewe flocks throughout most of the year, bringing them together only during breeding season for a few weeks each fall. If the shepherd isn’t particularly concerned with lining up particular genetic traits in the ram to go with specific ewes, a single ram can breed one- to two-hundred ewes in a single season. Because of this, we shepherds are generally much more selective in our ram choices than our ewe choices. In a single year, a ram may produce up to four hundred lambs, while a ewe within the same flock produces two – or at most, three or four. Most shepherds pay close attention to the ram and his traits, trying to bring in the very best they can find for the next generation.
I usually keep a small flock of rams — from young lambs to older adults — separate from the ewes. Every year, I fold in a few young guys who seem to hold promise for the flock in some way and move out some of the older guys — but having a number of choices every fall gives me peace of mind. In the ram flock, as in the overall flock, it seems that the sheep who hold my high hopes for fall breeding season are often the ones who end up injured or dead. And they tend to choose the most inconvenient times to become sick, injured, or worse. For rams, this is usually just before breeding.
Last year, Goliath died of cancer in the midst of breeding season, and the year before, Josiah injured himself the night before our breeding groups were to be assembled, leaving him unable to breed due to massive brain damage. Just off the top of my head, I remember Nash being killed by his flockmate Latham, and Kolorado casting himself on a hillside. Clancy, purchased in Michigan and transported to Iowa, hung himself in the barn on his second day here, and Gibbs just dropped dead in the field one September day. If I have learned anything over the years, it’s that death is a part of life, and it often comes with no warning. You just never know when you will lose a flock member — and when that flock member happens to be the ram you were planning to use in one of your specially considered breeding groups, you find yourself in the midst of a mess!
As a result, I’ve come to realize that it’s good insurance to keep a backup ram with genetics similar to the primary ram of any given breeding group. When your primary ram drops dead and can’t breed, you really don’t want to desperately put in just any ram among your ewes. As a result, when I stumble across a good ram — one that would get me closer to any of our breeding goals for the next few years — there’s a good chance that I’ll be interested in him. I’ve found that having too many rams is a much better position than not having enough.
Yet, not just any ram that falls into my lap is a “good one.” I look at a lot of traits in our rams, and my expectations are high. If the ram in question meets all of those expectations and is priced within reach, then I’ll generally end up bringing him home. If he is as good as all that, even if I don’t decide to use him, I know that I can always sell him. Good is good — and if he is that good, someone besides me will want him.
The word has gotten out, I think, and I find that I seldom need to go looking for rams anymore — for either of our breeds. When a great guy comes along, most breeders who know our farm will drop me a line and tell me what they have, in hopes that this ram might be one of those for which I will say, “A good ram is too good to pass up!” Yet every ram we consider for purchase is compared to our own upcoming ram lambs. Does he have something to offer that our own do not? Is the new ram as good in all traits, and perhaps even better in some? Or is he more of the same?
This year I’ll bring in rams of various ages from California, Wisconsin, central Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Not all of them will end up breeding our ewes, but all seem like good enough candidates for my final evaluation. Those that move our flock forward will stay, and those that do not will be sold. Our fall breeding groups are still in flux, but the one thing I know is that I’ll have plenty of really great rams to choose from! And that is what’s most important!