Buying Rams – How Do They Measure Up?
Imagine walking into a supermarket to do your weekly shopping. You go through the entry gate, grab a trolley with a wonky wheel and head for the aisles. You turn down the first aisle and there, on both sides of the aisle for the length of the store, are rows and rows of jars, bottles, bags and tins neatly stacked up with price tags below them on the shelves.
The only problem is that none of the containers have any labels! Just plain silver tins, glass jars, plastic bags and cardboard boxes!
You know that the things you need for the next week are on those shelves somewhere, but how are you going to find them?
Sure, you could open the various containers, have a look at the contents, smell them, even taste them. You would certainly find most of the things that you had on your shopping list that way. But if you are going to part with your hard earned dollar and want Nescafe Gold Blend instead of any instant coffee (because you prefer the flavour), then it’s going to get pretty difficult.
Without accurate and precise labelling, it’s pretty well impossible to tell the difference between items on the same part of the supermarket shelf.
You ask the store manager why the products in his store are not labelled. He tells you that it’s to save money, or it’s too difficult to do or that the labels aren’t important, they’re all good products because he has taken the bad products off of the shelves already.
You probably decide that next time it’s easier to more accurately do your shopping at a different supermarket where all of the containers are labelled and plenty of information about the products on the shelves is available to help you make your shopping decisions.
The same is true when you are buying rams.
After all, rams are just containers of genetic material that you buy to improve the genetic merit of your flock. Only in this case, you are buying much more than a jar of coffee. The rams you buy typically determine 90 percent or more of the genetic gain in your flock and the consequences of poor buying decisions will last in the form of the rams progeny for many years.
Rams all come in very similar packaging. Some are in different sized and shaped containers and some have more attractive or stylish outer wrappings. Some have had a more favourable growing environment or are presented better. But without labels, how do you know that the ram source and the individual rams presented for sale will meet your breeding objective and will make you more money now and into the future?
To improve the chances of buying the right rams for your flock and your genetic direction, you should ask stud breeders the following questions.
Question 1 – What is the studs breeding objective?
First and foremost you should ask the stud what their breeding objective is.
The genetic progress of your flock is inextricably linked to the direction and speed of progress of the stud that you use.
When the stud is defining their breeding objective for you, listen carefully to where they are placing their selection emphasis. Is their breeding objective based upon improving traits that directly relate to profit on your farm or are they more concerned with other traits.
How much change are they aiming for over what time period?
They should be able to tell you their goals in real terms i.e. “2 microns finer than present over the next 10 years with no change in clean fleece weight or body weight” or “ 10% heavier cutting and 1 micron finer in 10 years”. This will then allow you to understand whether their genetic direction matches yours.
(Note: The FP+ index can produce about 3 microns lower fibre diameter with no change to clean fleece weight in 10 years; the DP+ index can produce about 17% more clean fleece weight with no change to fibre diameter in 10 years)
If their response to this question is “Oh well, we’d like to be a bit finer and a bit heavier cutting with very stylish wool”, you know straight away that they are unlikely to change diameter or clean fleece weight much over a 5 or 10 year period.
Ideally, your stud should be able to show you how much genetic progress it has made over the last 5 – 10 years. Some studs can.
If your stud can’t, ask why not!
Question 2 – How does the stud select its sires?
How does the stud make its own selection decisions on replacement stud sires?
Does it use measured performance information to make these major decisions or do they rely on other criteria?
It is likely that studs that do not use measured performance of economic traits as an important part of their ram selection process will be making less progress than studs which measure performance accurately and use this information in a selection index.
If your stud measures and generates an index but selects rams with lower measured performance for use in the stud, you know that genetic progress will be slow. (Note: a measured index value of 100 represents a sheep that is of average performance for the index being used)
Question 3 – Has the stud been involved in any genetic benchmarking?
Ask if the stud benchmarks their genetic performance. This includes:
- being involved in any well designed wether trials – CAREFULLY ANALYSE THIS INFORMATION! – not all wether trials are designed to accurately determine the genetic merit of the participating bloodlines. For example, small trials based on a few selected sheep often tell you more about the ability of the breeder to pick productive sheep than the genetic merit of the stud.
- on property benchmarking using progeny assessment of their stud rams versus lambs bred from semen from top rams tested in sire evaluation schemes.
- involvement in across flock progeny comparisons. These studs compare the performance of their rams against well used industry sires.
- having top rams evaluated in sire evaluation trials such as Central Test Sire Evaluation (CTSE). However, beware of this point – the results from one ram in CTSE, be it good or bad, is not an indication of the overall genetic merit of the stud. However, having many top performing rams in CTSE that are also being used extensively in the stud are a good indication of expected performance.
Question 4 – Are there any measurements for the sale rams?
Ask the stud breeder for the measurements on the sale rams. Many studs have them but don’t advertise that they are available.
If there are no measurements (labels), it’s probably time to jump in the car and go to another supermarket (stud). If the stud is not measuring or just providing measurements for marketing purposes, how are they selecting their sale rams?
When you are given measurements, critically review how they were taken. To have any accuracy, they must be based on more than 6 months wool growth after an even up shearing in rams that are more than 10 months old. I cannot emphasise this enough.
If these measurement criteria are not being met, ask the stud breeder why. There may be a legitimate reason. However, some studs have learnt to manipulate how and when they take measurements simply to impress ram buyers (that is why some studs have rams that test at 19.5 micron in May from 4 months wool grown in summer / autumn and when you measure them a year later with 12 months wool growth, they are 23 microns!).
Don’t take actual measurements provided to you in absolute terms either. The performance of a ram in relation to his management group is much more important than his actual measurement. In other words, a ram that is 1.5 microns finer than the average for his group is finer, irrespective of his actual measured fibre diameter.
Look for a selection index. If the stud is measuring correctly and incorporates all of this plus pedigree information into a selection index for you (ASBV’s), this will help you rank the sale rams based on their true genetic merit. Once again it is important that the measurements are taken correctly and consistently with more than 6 months wool growth after an even up shearing in rams older than 10 months.
Treat first shearing measurements and those from less than 6 months wool growth with a great deal of caution.
For example, at 10 months of age with no even up shearing as lambs:
- Single born lambs may cut 20% more fleece weight than twin lambs
- Lambs born to maiden ewes may cut 6% less fleece weight than those born to adults
- Rams born 30 days apart may differ by 20% in fleece weight
Ask the stud the following questions to give you confidence in their measurements and your assessment:
- Is the spread of age between the youngest and oldest sheep in the group less than 8 weeks?
- Have all of the rams been run together in the same mob and received the same management from weaning to assessment and then to sale?
- Did the rams have an even up shearing prior to measured assessment shearing?
- Were the rams 10 months of age or older when they were measured for fleece weight?
- Did the rams have 6 months or more wool growth before measured assessment?
- Has the performance information provided taken account of birth and rearing type, age of dam or age effects in the rams?
- Has the performance information taken account of the pedigree of the rams?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the performance of the rams cannot be compared. It will also make visual comparisons much less accurate. In a way, presenting information to you on rams that does not satisfy the 7 questions above is like the mislabelling of products on the supermarket shelf – it is false and misleading!
Question 5 – How are the rams graded?
Knowing how the stud has graded their rams will help you assess the relevance of the system the stud uses and can make decisions on how much to pay for a ram easier.
Some studs grade their rams on measured performance and estimated progeny values (ASBV’s). You then only have to satisfy yourself that the visual wool quality and type of sheep is to your liking and matches your direction.
In other studs where grading is based more heavily on visual characteristics you may find top performing rams that have been downgraded because of subjectively assessed faults at prices far less than their true genetic merit.
Question 6 – What is the 5 year average micron and wool cut of the adult stud ewes?
All studs should easily be able to provide you with this information. Having the averages over the last 5 years will help remove the effects of season from the measurements.
This information will give you a good guide as to the average genetic potential of the rams for sale. A team of rams from a particular bloodline will tend to breed towards the average of their dams for fibre diameter and wool cut.
Therefore, if your studs adult ewe average fibre diameter over the last 5 years in 12 months wool growth is 22 microns and the rams being presented measure at 19 microns, expect significant increases in their own fibre diameter with age.
The exception to this is when sires with markedly different performance have been used to breed the rams and this should be happening as part of a defined breeding objective.
Question 7 – What disease assurance does the stud provide?
Studs should be willing and able to provide you with independent assurance that their sheep are free from or have a low risk of diseases.
The rams you buy have a huge impact on the productivity and profitability of your flock. By understanding what is required to make informed ram buying decisions, you can ensure that you only buy productive rams that match your genetic direction and improve your flock into the future.
You would not go and buy your weekly groceries at a shop where nothing was accurately labelled – why should it be any different when buying your rams?
If you are a Stud Breeder or a Commercial Buyer, I hope the message is the same:
1) Data is very important in making informed ram buying decisions
2) Knowing what the data is telling you, how it relates to your current position, and acting upon it is the key to making those decisions profitable
If you are lacking good data in your sheep farm, we can help you implement a simple and reliable data recording system and give you the training and tools you need to succeed. Don’t be afraid to reach out
Happy ram buying!