Effect of Nutrition

Nutrition has a direct bearing upon reproductive performance. Ewes kept in acceptable condition before breeding normally produce more lambs if they are flushed, or given the chance to gain weight before and during the breeding season. They can be flushed with rested pastures or by supplementation. Begin flushing three weeks before breeding and, if possible, continue through the first cycle (approximately 17 days).

Flushing ewes is most effective when they are mated early in the breeding season. Since ovulation rate is near a maximum during the middle of the season, flushing at this time is not as beneficial. The results of flushing are quite variable. Sometimes, when farm flock ewes are already on a high nutrition level before the breeding season, flushing may not affect ovulation or lambing percentage.

Nutrition affects total lifetime productivity of sheep by influencing mature size. Well-developed ewes consistently have higher lamb crop percentages than smaller ewes. Fat ewes, however, are typically less fertile, do not respond to flushing, and may experience more embryonic death loss.

Ewes grazed on legume pastures, such as alfalfa and clover, may at times be less fertile. Under some conditions, the estrogen content of these legumes is related to reproductive disorders. Breeding dates may be delayed and conception rate reduced when ewes are on pastures that have a high estrogen content. However, the estrogen content of legumes declines during the later stages of maturity.

Effect of Lambing and Lactation

Both lambing and lactation suppress estrous cyclicity in ewes. Generally, the postpartum anestrous phase lasts through lactation, even though the uterus typically returns to normal two to three weeks after lambing. Most ewes that lamb in late winter or spring do not exhibit estrus until the following breeding season. However, ewes that lamb in the fall usually exhibit a fertile heat four to eight weeks after lambing, or approximately two weeks after weaning.

Effect of Ram

Infertile, diseased, or disinterested rams often cause poor lambing rates. The average number of ewes that can be mated to a ram are as follows: well-matured ram lambs, 15 to 30 ewes; yearlings to five-year-old rams, 25 to 50 ewes. However, in many of the low-rainfall areas of New Mexico, the average number of ewes per ram may be 30 to 40 percent lower than these values. These rates depend upon season, temperature, sex drive, and body condition. Rams six years and older that are in good physical condition may still be suitable for pasture or hand breeding.

Rams vary in their sexual behavior. Some rams mate repeatedly with the same ewes, even though several other ewes in heat are present. Some rams prefer black-faced or white-faced ewes when both groups are in the same flock.

Temperature has a pronounced effect on the ram’s semen quality. Rams may be completely sterile or show lower fertility during late summer as a result of the heat. If the temperature exceeds 90°F for an extended period, especially if the humidity is high, fertility of most rams is reduced. Rams must be in good physical condition for successful reproduction. Malnutrition, internal parasites, or disease can cause sterility or depress the ram’s desire to mate. Common diseases, such as those affecting the feet or any of the external breeding organs, can make it impossible for a ram to breed ewes.

The formation and development of sperm requires six to seven weeks. Therefore, after recovery from sickness or heat stress, it takes six to seven weeks for a ram to produce sperm capable of fertilization. An infertile ram in a one-sire flock can cause complete lambing failure. Also, a single dominant infertile ram in a large flock incorporating several rams can prevent fertile rams from mating and result in a lower lambing rate.

It is important to fertility test rams, particularly in one-sire flocks. Semen testing by qualified veterinarians is recommended to farm-flock producers, especially when only one or two rams are being used. If semen testing is not possible, the use of a marking harness can be beneficial. If several of the ewes return to heat, it may be necessary to substitute another ram.