Study into longevity finds working life of a ram is less than four years
A study on rams, which collected data in order to improve their longevity and promote high welfare standards, has identified a number of management practices which could enhance lifespan. Wendy Short spoke to independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings, right, who helped to compile the report.
THERE are about 400,000 rams in the UK, with many failing to make the breeding team after their first year for a variety of reasons.
A lack of data related to the reasons for ram culling and deaths has prompted a survey into the issue, and Lesley Stubbings was one of the researchers who undertook the extensive project, which was funded by the Norman Hayward Fund of the British Veterinary Association Animal Welfare Foundation.
The investigation involved ten farmer focus groups across the country with a total of 90 flocks, as well as a web-based survey, plus information sent in by participating flock keepers, who provided detailed records of purchases and losses over several years.
“Our survey results showed that most farmers believed a ram should last for four or five years,” says Northamptonshire-based Ms Stubbings.
“It was felt that shearlings were at risk in their first year, but that if they survived that first 12-month period, they are likely to have a long and productive life. Ram lambs were considered to be more prone to early health problems, possibly because many arrived on their new farms, having been reared on high levels of concentrate feed.
“It emerged that the actual working life of a ram was 3.8 years, which was significantly below the figure that farmers were hoping to achieve. It was also found that rams in larger flocks tend have a shorter life expectancy, compared with those in medium and small flocks. This explains why the survey showed that producers with large flocks were generally more dissatisfied than those falling into the other flock size classifications.”
Questioned about the reasons why rams were culled, the survey respondents cited old age, lameness and poor condition as the main causes, followed by respiratory illness. In addition, a number were culled as a result of poor teeth. The researchers also received a number of comments which suggested that farmers felt they were “too accepting” of ram deaths and admitted that economic losses through failure to achieve cull values were higher than they would like.
Losses among respondents ranged widely, with annual figures of between five per cent and 25 per cent submitted and an increased number of deaths in a year of particularly bad weather.
One of the factors which may be responsible for rams falling short of their new owners’ expectations on longevity could be the move for some individuals from a pedigree flock, into a commercial situation, suggests Ms Stubbings.
In some cases, they are not given a managed transitional period and may face challenges which can have an impact on their health.
Another area under investigation by the researchers covered how much knowledge producers had of the management of their rams before they were purchased.
Roughly two-thirds of purchasers stated that they were aware of previous vaccination history, but fewer than half were fully aware of past worming treatments and feeding regimes. As could be expected, producers who bought from private breeders had greater knowledge of previous treatments, compared to those who bought from auction marts.
“We also looked at the treatments that were given to rams post-purchase,” adds Ms Stubbings. “Fewer than 60 per cent were routinely given a clostridial vaccine plus pneumonia vaccine, with 24 per cent given a clostridial vaccination only. The large flock managers were more likely to treat their rams with a vaccination against footrot and overall, only one quarter of flock keepers opted to administer footrot vaccines.”
Asked whether a quarantine period was applied to rams, more than 75 per cent of producers gave a positive response, but for the majority it extended to less than four weeks, with only 13 per cent quarantined for over a month.
The survey found that the most common route for the purchase of tups was to buy direct from the breeder, a method which accounted for 57 per cent of respondents.
Meanwhile, larger flocks were more likely to buy from specialist breed sales. The amount that was paid for a ram varied widely, with the most common prices falling between £300 and £700.
Only just over 34 per cent of respondents always or mostly bought performance-recorded rams, the report noted, with a slight increase among lowland flocks and 42 per cent declaring that they rarely or never used performance-recording data to influence their purchases.
The report identified several areas where there was room for improvement in ram longevity on sheep farms and one recommendation put forward was that vendors should share more information with purchasers of their rams, says Ms Stubbings.
It had been noted that rams lost a significant level of condition (nine per cent on average) from pre to post-tupping, and that additional supplementary feeding could contribute to the maintenance of robust health in the future.
The data submitted on ram deaths due to old age had provided valuable insight.
“Old age was a major factor in both the culling and the death of rams,” she comments. The question is whether too many rams are dying or being culled because of old age and how this affects welfare.
“Lameness is another major cause of culling and is also associated with reduced fertility and low body condition; it is perhaps the case that less attention is paid to the care of ram’s feet, compared with ewes. The use of a footrot vaccine and regular footbathing is relatively low, which indicates there is scope for improvement on this issue.
“There is also a relatively low use of vaccination for other diseases, and with the cost of rams making an impact on spending, vaccination might be used more widely, to extend a ram’s working life. I would also advise producers to quarantine their rams for three to four weeks, as a minimum.”
Ms Stubbings highlights the mantra “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” This, she says, applies to rams, as well as to the ewe flock. “We need to further develop key performance indicators for rams and use benchmarking, to track performance, with the information integrated into breed objectives for rams, in addition to the usual growth rate figures.
“This will help sheep keepers to implement technical improvements and measure the cost benefits that have been accrued.”
The survey results were collated jointly by Lesley Stubbings, Kate Phillips, Chris Lewis and Phil Stocker.