Pre-Breeding Management Decisions for Small Ruminants

— Written By Emily Cope
en Español / em Português

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For many small ruminant producers, breeding season is 2 – 4 months away. With the anticipation of breeding season coming, early preparations will set your operations up for success. There are several management decisions that should be evaluated before breeding season begins. Before producers turn rams/bucks in with ewes/does the following factors may be helpful for making management decisions:

Rams and Bucks

For the most part, our rams and bucks get little attention outside of breeding season; however, now is a good time provide a little extra care.

  • Rams and bucks need to be in good condition at the time of breeding. Ideally, males should be between 3 – 4 body condition score, or BCS, before breeding. Males may lose up to 15% of their body weight during breeding season. Watch out for overly thin or overly fat males, as both conditions can affect their fertility and ability to breed efficiently.
  • Performing a Breeding Soundness Exam, or BSE, on males before breeding season is highly recommended. By having your veterinarian perform a BSE you are evaluating the potential breeding ability of the male. During a BSE, males are evaluated on physical examination (good health, hooves, eyes, legs, etc.) and semen evaluation. Waiting until lambing or kidding to find out your male was sub-fertile can be a costly decision.

Ewes and Does

Just coming out of lactation, most ewes and does are entering into a period where they can get by on fewer inputs. However, during the off season there are some nutritional and management needs that should be evaluated first.

  • On a 5-point BCS scale, a good target BCS for breeding is a 3 for both ewes and does. However, for some females they may have lost a whole condition score, which may translate to being under conditioned. For under conditioned females consider offering a high energy diet or access to a high quality pasture to replenish lost condition. Corn makes a good high energy supplement at 0.5 – 1 pound per animal per day. Avoid over conditioning females because it can reduce fertility and be wasteful. If feeding a high quality pasture remember to avoid grazing pastures with high legume percentages (> 30%) close to breeding. Legumes are rich in estrogens that will affect fertility in small ruminants. Be selective and strategic with your supplementation.
  • Mange your females by groups. Sorting into groups by BCS will allow you to feed to meet dietary requirements and needs.
  • Remember, sheep are fairly resilient with fertility but less so with prolificacy. Sheep can remain fertile even when nutrients are inadequate to meet requirements; however, prolificacy is much reduced with poor nutrition. The ability for our females to lamb or kid without difficulty and to raise healthy offspring (aim for twins!) is dependent on their nutrition. To ensure these two outcomes a stable nutrition program before breeding is a must.
  • Ewe lambs from under conditioned dams are less prolific. Ewe lambs that are less prolific means they give birth to more single lambs than twins. Puberty can be delayed if nutritional requirements are not met. Ovulation rates can be affected in ewes if suboptimal growth occurs before weaning.
  • Make culling decisions early. Some suggested reasons for culling are below:
    • Open or broken mouth (missing teeth)
    • Bad teats and udders
    • Persistent parasite issues
    • Failure to rear offspring
    • Poor performance or mothering ability
    • Bad feet