How do you plan on breeding ewes this year? (hand mating, natural mating, A.I., ET?)
We will utilize all breeding options during the breeding season. Our predominant route, and the first step for us will be AI and Embryo Transfer. We will flush 20 donors in early August and will AI a bulk of our remaining females at the same time. About 10 days after the AI, we will turn our 20+ implanted wethers to use as teasers in with the AI group and will hand breed as they recycle off the AI. This helps us split ewes up amongst all the bucks in the event that multiple ewes cycle at the same time, which they should as they were synchronized just one cycle prior. This method keeps the bucks from becoming exhausted which maintains our ability to sell semen nearly any time during the breeding season without risk of fertility or concentration and volume issues to become limiters. Only late in the fall will we turn large groups of ewes in with bucks to breed naturally, and it is strictly on a clean-up basis. On occasion we have a buck who we don't intend to sell semen on that we will turn in with a group of 20-30 from the beginning and manage by pulling him from the ewes during the day and only allowing breeding at night.
When synchronizing ewes for hand mating or natural (group) mating, what are your protocols?
As described in question number 1, we don't actually synchronize for hand mating. But I'll describe our method of hand breeding when there are sometimes many ewes in heat at the same time. Obviously, the more success we have on our AI, the easier our hand breeding time is. We've had days when there are 20 ewes in heat at the same time on that first recycle. We check heat first thing in the morning and sort all the females in standing heat. The ewes will be turned in with a buck one by one so that he can breed her just one time. After he breeds her she is sorted out. We try to give each buck at least 10 to 15 minutes between ewes if possible. Once every buck in the barn has bred their specified ewe one time we will start the process over with a new set of ewes if there are more than one ewe that each buck needs to breed. If there isn't another ewe to sort to a specific buck then we will breed his ewe twice in that time. Otherwise, we generally can get about 16-20 ewes bred at least one time each in the first morning session depending how many bucks are in the barn. We will breed that group of ewes again at about noon using the same, two round rotation. In the evening those ewes are bred at least once more before we check heat on the big group again. Our goal is to get them bred at least 3 times before a new group of ewes comes in the next shift. We don't breed anything through the night and the process starts back over the next morning. The first priority are the ewes who have been sorted for now 24 hours. They are given the chance to breed and will stay in the barn for as long as they are still in standing heat. Once those have been gone through, we follow with the ones who came into heat the night before and then end with the new ones from that morning. We will continue that until this cycle of ewes is all finished. Generally it lasts from 3-5 days and the number of ewes each day gets lower. We get about 80% of the recycled ewes settled by breeding this way and never breed any buck to exhaustion. In the past we have tried turning bucks in with groups after the AI and we could only get about 20-30% settled, most likely due to the fact that a buck, especially a young one, will breed one ewe 8-9 times in a night and may sometimes ignore the other 10 who are in heat. Or just won't have enough semen left in reserve for that many ejaculates in consecutive jumps.
What is a reasonable conception rate for a successful AI program?
Conception rates when using AI are one of the most unpredictable figures in all of the business in my opinion. We all hear about breeder, ABC who shipped semen to AI tech, XYZ and under synchronization protocol, 123 they settled 80%. That is certainly a very realistic number. But for every 80% there are plenty of 30% to 60% days. There are so many variables that play a role in AI success. In my opinion, if we do everything to perfection that we are capable of controlling in preparation, we will have only solved about 50% of the things that can play a role in AI success. So with that, at my house we plan for 50% conception. Sometimes we may get 70-80%. But we've also had 20-30%. I've even seen two days at the same location on the same protocol split at 85% one day and 20% the next day with nothing changed between the two days. Just understand that we have not perfected this and we never will. If you go into it expecting 80% or better every time, I can promise that you will be disappointed at some point and it most likely won't be your fault.
What are some tips to increase ram and ewe fertility?
It is well documented that nutrition is the single most important factor for maintaining reproductively sound livestock. Without proper nutrition, it does not matter how nice your barn is, it doesn't matter how cool you keep a ram in the summer, or how low the stress is on them, you won't have a fertile ram if he is not 1st receiving and 2nd properly metabolizing the necessary vitamins and minerals that are the building blocks for spermatogenesis. Vitamins A,D and E are particularly important and we start supplementing a high energy feed additive fortified with A,D and E around the first of May. I personally like wheat germ oil, but there are many others to choose from. Mineral is equally important and what you use should be dependent upon your location and what is limited naturally. Keeping bucks cool is certainly a good practice to follow, but sheep have cooling mechanisms built in naturally so it is not necessary to go overboard. Minimizing significant stress is pretty important as well. If a buck has been stressed, it will almost always be evident in a semen sample under a microscope. Those are the factors we keep in mind when preparing for a breeding season. All of this needs to begin at least 60 days before you are ready to turn bucks in.
Our ewes are simply left on pasture and supplemented with salt and mineral. About 2 weeks before breeding we will introduce a protein tub that is actually fairly moderate in protein and in higher in energy. This is our only realistic "flush" on those ewes as we don't have enough feed bunk space to feed them like many do.
We’d like to thank Logan for taking the time to answer these questions. As breeding season proceeds, many of us will utilize new technology and techniques for the first time. Always follow the protocol of your AI tech and consult your veterinarian regarding breeding health issues.