Not all farms keep a ram — and even fewer keep multiple rams. With breeding season coming in only a few weeks, however, those of us with rams have shifted our focus from the gals to the guys in our flocks. Here at Peeper Hollow Farm, we tend to keep 10 to 15 rams, which is a lot of testosterone for 40 to 50 ewes. Since one ram is able to service fifty ewes or more, people often ask us why we keep so many males. Like most things we do here, we have a whole list of reasons why this works for us.
The first point is that although our sheep live together as one big flock for most of the year, that flock consists of two different breeds. Because we are producers of purebred breeding stock, we must run separate breeding groups for each breed — and usually at least two different breeding groups for each breed, so that we can offer ewe lambs with an unrelated ram lamb as starter flocks for buyers. This one step immediately requires four different rams just to get our ewes bred.
Besides that, I am often working on several additional goals — sometimes geared towards flock improvement and at other times intended to shed light on a genetic trait that is not well understood. Over the years, I have worked on figuring out the production of moorit lambs in the Romeldales, the inheritance of staple length in both breeds, the linkage between growth and dark fleece in the Romneys, fleece darkening with age in the Romeldale, and most recently the inheritance of spotting in Romeldales. This work often leads to an additional one or two breeding groups, requiring at least one or two extra rams to lead those groups. That now puts us at six or seven rams to run our basic breeding groups.
Yet, if only it were that simple. Things happen. Rams get sick or find themselves seriously injured. The day before breeding begins is not a good time to find out one of your rams has just died and that you need to find a replacement — fast! A friend of mine recently lost one of the yearling rams (due to meningeal worm) that she intended to use in a group beginning Sept. 15th. Thankfully, she also kept his half-brother, just in case! Because of the unpredictability of this kind of loss, I always keep a “genetic equivalent” for each of the rams I intend to use, which can double our basic six rams to twelve! I say “can” because of my definition of “genetic equivalent.” Each of our breeding groups is put together with a purpose in mind. One of this year’s groups is intended to improve uniformity of fleece, so the ram leading that group has a very uniform fiber profile. His replacement has been kept because he carries the same trait and could be substituted in a pinch. His other traits might not be quite as good a fit for that group of ewes, but if something happened to my first-string ram, I have a backup who carries the sought-after trait. Each group is working on one or more traits, and each ram has a boy waiting in the wings to take his place.
While all of this is taking place, I’m also looking towards the future. Every year we keep some of the most promising new ram lambs, let them grow out, and then reevaluate them as yearlings. This fairly long list of ram lambs is established as early as June (shortly after birth), but by this time of year I’m already reducing the list. I have a list of goals for the flock, and any of the boys who I feel might be an improvement over their sires or who would work well for another of our goals will stay on this list of ram lambs. These boys often enhance some trait already in the works, but they can also begin progress toward other goals on my list for future flock improvements.
This past spring I identified the following rams as possibilities for overwintering: Qallan, Quillan, Quan, Qayin, Quartz, Qremlin, Quechan, Quinault, Quest, and Qubo (these latter two — with our genetics — at a nearby “satellite farm”). Had every one of these rams made the cut this year (and depending on sales of adult rams) we could have ended up overwintering seventeen or more rams! Yet as the year has progressed, the list has narrowed to six ram lambs based on their traits. I was not happy when Qallan’s “scurs” ended up becoming slow-growing horns; Quechan is very similar to Quartz, but ended up with a much lovelier fleece, pushing me to keep Quechan instead of Quartz; Quinault was sold for breeding to another farm in Iowa; and Qremlin didn’t grow at nearly the rate I had at first hoped. As a result, we will overwinter thirteen rams or ram lambs here this winter, a manageable number. This list also leaves me with a nice number of rams for sale in 2018, once I make my final selections next June for those who I will keep for our own flock. Every one of the boys we’ll keep this year is a high-quality breeding ram who has a bounty of positive traits.
Peeper Hollow is a bit unusual in the number of rams that we keep, but they set us up for a less stressful run-up to breeding season. I know I’ll have the rams I need to produce both replacements for our own flock and lambs for high-quality starter flocks. Plus, next lambing season should shed additional light on some of my ongoing projects, like the mechanism that produces spotting. Every farm needs to figure out how many rams they can manage, considering the resources at their disposal. For us, more rams are better than less, which means somewhere between 10 to 15 boys eager for turnout into their breeding groups when the time comes!