Ram selection affects returns
It is a decision that can influence their flock and profitability for years, yet too often farmers do not spend enough time or effort buying the right rams, says Sheep Improvement Ltd adviser Sharon McIntyre.
She said after a Beef + Lamb field day held at Peter and Cathy Moore's Upper Moutere property that the difference between a good and bad purchase could be thousands of dollars.
"A ram can make quite a lot of difference because you are keeping his daughters. If you use a ram for three years and then his daughters lamb for another three years, you are talking seven years or so of direct effect and it can easily be a couple of thousand dollars difference in returns over that period."
Farmers tended to put in the homework when they were looking to change the genetic balance of their flock, but not when they had been buying off the same breeder for a long time, she said.
"They don't have to revisit who they buy off but they can certainly buy smarter."
With a ram typically selling for $800 to $1500, it paid to keep up with breeding developments.
This started with farmers knowing how their flocks were performing and the breeding goals they wanted to achieve before selecting rams with the right genetic traits to get there, she said.
It meant they had to know how to interpret the selection indexes, production data and trait options recorded by breeders under the SIL programme, a Beef + Lamb service through which 80 per cent of all rams were purchased, to make sure they got what they wanted.
This process had got more complex with more traits to pick from, Ms McIntyre said.
While selecting for fertility, growth and lamb survival remained the core traits, farmers could also breed for meat yield, resistance to internal parasites and facial eczema, and even fewer dags, she said.
The mix varied according to what the farmer was trying to achieve and the type of property being farmed, although most were either "maintainers or improvers".
For example, some on hill country might be happy with a lower lambing percentage as long as they could grow their lambs faster and meatier, while others on easier properties wanted as many lambs as possible so would focus on choosing rams with high reproduction and survival values, she said.
Mr Moore, whose family runs 3050 romney ewes, 1100 ewe hoggets and 65 ram hoggets as well as a small stud started by his grandfather, said ram selection was one of the most important ways to increase productivity.
"It's not something you do in five minutes at the end of the day. It takes time and you have got to know what you want before you start."
He sells up to 30 rams a year, but devotes a lot time to deciding what stud sires to buy when he wants to bring in fresh genetics.
"When I buy a ram I get the breeder to give me all their SIL records and not just the ones of rams they are putting up for sale."
He said it was no longer good enough for a breeder to say "this one is a twin and this one is a single and give you the weaning weight" when there was so much other relevant information available.
Relying on what a ram looked like was also risky, although it should have a sound structure, he said. "Last year I used a two-tooth ram who looked good and seemed to be one of the biggest, but the SIL figures said he didn't have good growth values. I overrode that and used him but it was a mistake."
Like many Nelson farmers, Mr Moore said one of his primary objectives was to finish all his lambs and have most of them off to the works prior to Christmas before it got too dry and he ran short of grass to feed his replacement stock. That had meant changing from buying big, long rams which produced slower-growing, leggy lambs to ones that bred "smaller, dumpier" offspring which matured early.
"In the past lambs averaged 12-13 kilograms in [Nelson A&P] show week, now they are averaging 17-18kg. A lot of that is to do with improved genetics and also to better feeding."
As well as focusing on growth rates, he bred for worm resistance because he leased a lot of lifestyle blocks which did not have yards so was not able to treat sheep easily, Mr Moore said.
It is a breeding strategy which has paid off, with the Moores' operation, which also includes 1435 cattle, performing significantly better on almost every indicator than the average for that class of property.
Figures compiled by farm consultant and field day facilitator Greg Sheppard show their 430-hectare farm returned an economic surplus last year of $71.22 per stock unit compared with a class average of $41.02. This gave a return on capital of 6.1 per cent compared with an average of 4.2 per cent.
With better lambing and calving percentages, their gross income per stock unit was appreciably higher while their working expenses were lower than average, leading to a healthy surplus.
Mr Moore said it came as a surprise to learn they were doing that well.
Mr Sheppard said the 40 farmers who turned up to the field day had seen a very smart operation.