Breeding Season for Small Ruminants
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For some, breeding season for sheep and goats has already begun. Breeding season and reproductive management of herds and flocks vary from farm to farm and are dependent on many factors. Regardless of your season or management practices, most small ruminant operators strive to increase their flocks/herds efficiency and optimize the number of healthy offspring. Also, there are management practices that are recommended regardless of your operation.
Body Condition Scoring
On a 5-point Body Condition Score (BCS) scale, a good target BCS for breeding is a 3 for both ewes and does. However, some females may have lost a whole condition score or more during lactation, 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.
Rams and bucks need to be in good condition at the time of breeding. Ideally, males should be between 3 – 4 BCS. 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.
We could talk for hours about flushing, but let’s try to be brief. Flushing ewes and does means to offer them an increased plane or level of nutrition. Flushing can optimize conception rates and increase the percentage of lamb/kid crops. Additionally, flushing is beneficial for females that are entering into breeding underconditioned. Flushing is done by increasing the energy component of the ration approximately 3 – 4 weeks before breeding. Females with BCS less than 3 often respond best to flushing. Flushing has not proven to be effective in females already on a high plane of nutrition or for females in BCS greater than 3.
Breeding Soundness Exam
Performing a Breeding Soundness Exam, or BSE, on males before breeding season is highly recommended. A BSE, typically performed by your veterinarian, evaluates 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.
Females can also be evaluated for breeding soundness. For females, evaluate the following:
- Teeth – broken or open mouths will inhibit her ability to eat
- Udder – udder conformation will be important for nursing offspring
- Hooves – good, sound feet will aid in her ability to be serviced by the male and forage
- Mothering ability – did she successfully raise last years’ offspring? Obviously you cannot evaluate a female that hasn’t lambed/kidded before, but use this metric for females that have.
These recommendations are not an exhaustive list, but do include important aspects to remember as your small ruminants enter breeding season. Evaluate your current production practices, look back to last year to see what went well and areas that need improvement, and remember to look at your current nutrition program. Rations should be balanced to meet nutrient requirements for energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals (and water!) for the production stage of your livestock.
For more information about breeding small ruminants consult your veterinarian or contact your local Extension office.