Today I’m writing about a situation that occasionally arises in any flock during breeding season: a ram who doesn’t (or can’t) work. We use a marking harness and crayon on each of our breeding rams, so every time one of our boys breeds one of his ewes, we are alerted by the colored blotch on the back of her coat. I check each pasture at least once a day to record which ewes are newly marked. This indicator gives me an accurate record of when each ewe will deliver her lambs. For the Romneys, the due date is accurate +2 days, and for the Romeldales, +4 days. When you pack in as much as I do to every week, this information is critical!
The problem, however, arises when you begin to notice that one or more of your rams aren’t marking any of their ewes. How long do you wait before doing something? And if you want to do something, what can you do? A few days ago, I got a phone call from a friend who asked just such a question. She had put her Romeldale rams in with their two groups of ewes last Friday, and she called Wednesday morning. One ram hadn’t yet marked anyone, and she was debating taking him out and giving all his ewes to the other ram. What did I think?
In that particular case, I suggested she wait. Ewes will only allow the ram to mark them when they are in heat, and each ewe cycles through heat for only a day or two (sometimes even less) every seventeen days on average. That means that in a three-week period, each of the ewes in a group should have cycled through heat at least once. If the ram hasn’t marked anyone in that period, it’s likely that the ram is either infertile or unwilling to do his job. The problem in my friend’s case was that her boy just hadn’t had enough time to breed his ewes. After barely five days, it was very possible that none of the ewes in his group had cycled through heat yet. I was not surprised that he had not yet marked any of his girls, and it was too soon to judge his performance.
In my Romney group in the East Pasture, however, something else is going on. Goliath has been with his Romney ewes for two weeks already and has only marked one girl slightly (not a very good marking). Although it’s possible that none of his girls have cycled through heat within the fourteen days, last night I observed Noa in the neighboring pasture flirting with one of Goliath’s girls. She was obviously in heat, responding to Noa’s advances in very recognizable hormone-driven ways. If Goliath was doing his job, I decided, I should find this girl marked by him when I checked the pastures this morning. She was not marked.
This leaves me with the obvious impression that Goliath is unable to perform his job this year, and that means the eight ewes in his group will remain open unless I make some changes — and soon! I have a couple of options. Since I have two other Romney groups, I could divide his ewes between the other two groups. Yet one of those groups has no markings either. I have two ram lambs there who still haven’t figured out what the season is all about. I’m willing to give them just a bit longer, but I’m not willing to risk even more open girls by giving them additional ewes. No, I think I will go with my second option: switch out Goliath with a backup ram who I always keep on hand for just such a situation. Because I’ve had too many rams end up dead or injured just before or during breeding season, I always keep a number of backup rams to replace my first choice — just in case!
In the situation with Goliath, my backup is Martin, a white, color-carrying Romney ram I used last year. He is lovely in both conformation and fleece, and I’m happy to put him into a group again. I would have preferred a colored ram to replace Goliath, but I have no more colored rams at this point. Genetically, Martin is similar to Goliath in every way other than color, so he’ll easily replace him with a minimum of fuss. I’ll have to pull out Martin’s mother, Hannah, and move her into one of the other groups, but that is it. Within the next day or two, we’ll pull Goliath out, remove his harness, and put it onto Martin before putting him in with his new group.
The decision to switch out a ram shouldn’t be made too quickly — after all, he can’t do a thing until the ewe cycles through heat. And young rams need time to figure out how things work and what exactly they are supposed to do with their group. On the other hand, breeding season is only so long, and you really want to get lambs from each of the ewes. Unbred ewes can become fat, making them less likely to conceive the next year, resulting in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. Finding the perfect balance between waiting long enough but not too long is something that comes with experience — but even then, it isn’t unusual to second-guess your decision. This is a good situation to discuss with a shepherd friend who can make observations more objectively. Each situation is unique, and there are many factors involved. But in Goliath’s case, it’s time for a switch!