Improving the welfare and longevity of rams in commercial sheep flocks

Fund

Norman Hayward Fund

Grant

£37,080

Research Period

2016

Area of study

Sheep

Description

Summary
There are approximately 400,000 breeding rams in the UK, with an average cost of just over £500*. Prior to this work, there was little evidence of their flock life or the cost of their lifetime productivity. The findings of this project suggest that there is a need to improve ram longevity, particularly in terms of ram health and nutritional management, and that there is considerable scope to achieve this.
From a survey of nearly 600 sheep farmers, 10 Focus groups and detailed data from commercial farms the project found that the average flock life of rams is 3.8 years, but with a huge variation between flocks.  Surprisingly, the average ram flock life was longer than frequently quoted industry standards, about 3 years. However, this is balanced by the finding that old age, poor condition and dentition are given as major factors for both culling and deaths. This suggests that farmers are keeping rams too long, possibly to reduce costs, behaviour which may be influenced by their expectations that rams will work for 4-5 years.
Health planning and nutritional management were found to be key weaknesses. For example, after old age, lameness was the most common reason for culling rams. 41% are not vaccinated against pastuerellosis, yet respiratory disease was the third most common cause of deaths. Nearly 60% either do not quarantine new rams or do so for 2 weeks or less. This is in contrast the high priority attached to health status when purchasing rams.
While the identification of key areas for improvement is important, farmers need to be shown the cost benefit of adopting better health and nutrition practices, if there is to be a significant impact on the welfare of rams. The project also developed KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that would allow the cost of the ram to be calculated against measurable output criteria such as lambs/ram lifetime. For example, the cost per lamb varied from 25p to £4.50 and lifetime output from 100 to 450 lambs. Using these KPIs, farmers and their advisers can identify current performance, and measure the financial impact of their ram management changes.    

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