The Deep End

Tim Tyne weighs up the pros and cons of keep­ing a stud male

Country Smallholding - - Contents -

Keep­ing a stud male

How can you suc­cess­fully breed from your live­stock? At the most ba­sic level, you could leave males and fe­males to­gether, but this is not ad­vis­able (see Coun­try Small­hold­ing, July 2018), par­tic­u­larly on a small scale where it would re­sult in indis­crim­i­nate in­breed­ing, over­stock­ing and a de­cline in health and wel­fare stan­dards.

So, in the first in­stance, you need to plan an ap­pro­pri­ate breed­ing pro­gramme that will en­able your aims and ob­jec­tives to be met. You also need to en­sure that the tim­ing of events, such as mat­ings and births, will fit in around your other com­mit­ments, par­tic­u­larly if those re­quire you to be off the hold­ing.

With a plan in place, you can turn your at­ten­tion to ar­rang­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate union of male and fe­male. Here, the big­gest ques­tion fac­ing the small­holder is whether or not to keep a stud male of what­ever species it is they are in­tend­ing to breed from. With smaller an­i­mals, such as rab­bits and poul­try, it is re­ally not an is­sue as the daily care of the male is straight­for­ward. They don’t re­quire any spe­cial han­dling — al­though some ma­ture cock­erels can get a bit nasty and care may have to be taken if there are chil­dren around — and they aren’t ex­pen­sive to either pur­chase or main­tain. How­ever, once you move up to the males of larger species, such as pigs and cat­tle, you are deal­ing with po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous an­i­mals which re­quire

ex­pe­ri­enced han­dling and se­cure, pur­pose­built ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Goats and sheep fall some­where in the mid­dle. Also, for a small flock or herd, the cost of keep­ing a male is dif­fi­cult to jus­tify. In the past, it would have been rel­a­tively com­mon­place for the small-scale pro­ducer to take his cow or sow to a neigh­bour­ing larger farm when re­quired in or­der for it to be mated by their res­i­dent stock male.

An­other op­tion would have been to hire in a male for the du­ra­tion of the breed­ing sea­son. How­ever, a greater aware­ness of bio-se­cu­rity, to­gether with cur­rent re­stric­tions on live­stock move­ments, have made these op­tions less pop­u­lar, al­though they do still oc­cur.

Over the years, the fact that farm­ing has be­come more spe­cialised is an added com­pli­ca­tion. The tra­di­tional mixed farm is fast dis­ap­pear­ing, with the re­sult that large ar­eas of the coun­try­side are more or less de­void of live­stock, ex­cept for the few that are kept on small­hold­ings.

There­fore, if you live some­where like East Anglia, for ex­am­ple, a ca­sual visit to the friendly bull down the road is a thing of the past — be­cause there isn’t a bull down the road, just end­less acres of wheat.

Small­hold­ing fash­ions come and go, too. When my fam­ily started keep­ing goats about 35 years ago there were lots of other small­hold­ers all do­ing the same and there­fore no short­age of bil­lies to choose from. Nowa­days, how­ever, home dairy­ing is less pop­u­lar and it can prove dif­fi­cult for a goat­keeper to find a male stand­ing at stud within a rea­son­able driv­ing dis­tance.

Keep­ing a male – the pros and cons On the plus side...

Fe­males will show stronger signs of oestrus if a male is kept on the premises, re­sult­ing in fewer missed cy­cles.

He is much bet­ter at de­tect­ing oestrus than a hu­man is.

It gives you greater con­trol over the tim­ing of events as you don’t need to fit in with any­body else. In­creased bio-se­cu­rity. No stud fees to pay. Po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate ad­di­tional rev­enue by host­ing vis­it­ing fe­males, al­though this may negate the ear­lier point about bio-se­cu­rity.

... And the not so good

It may be dif­fi­cult to jus­tify the cost in small herds/flocks.

Ad­di­tional sub­stan­tial ac­com­mo­da­tion will be re­quired to con­tain the male dur­ing pe­ri­ods when he isn’t re­quired to run with the fe­males.

On no ac­count must the male be kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment when he isn’t work­ing. There­fore, if you only re­quire one breed­ing male you may need to keep an­other an­i­mal — usu­ally a cas­trate — for com­pany.

If you keep more than one male, at cer­tain times of the year they are likely to fight, with a very real risk of in­jur­ing — or even killing — one an­other.

The safe han­dling of bulls and boars re­quires ex­pe­ri­enced stock­man­ship. Even rams and billy goats can be dan­ger­ous and must be treated with re­spect. Ag­gres­sion to­wards peo­ple may be more of a prob­lem in smaller herds/flocks due to in­suf­fi­cient work to keep the male fully oc­cu­pied, cou­pled with a bold­ness brought about by hav­ing plenty of hu­man con­tact. There­fore, you can’t sim­ply shoo them away when they start to get pushy.

On bal­ance, the fol­low­ing would be re­quired to jus­tify the keep­ing of a male:

SHEEP: Prob­a­bly if you had six or more ewes it would be worth keep­ing a ram of your own. Any fewer than this and it would be bet­ter to bor­row/hire a ram when re­quired, or send your ewes to run with some­one else’s flock for a few weeks. How­ever, you do need to be aware of the health sta­tus of the other flock and take ap­pro­pri­ate pre­cau­tions. An­other al­ter­na­tive, where a spe­cific breed of ram is not re­quired, would be to buy in a well-grown ram lamb, use him and then kill him for the freezer or sell him on. This avoids the prob­lem of keep­ing an ex­tra an­i­mal through the rest of the year.

GOATS: Given that there are so few billy goats stand­ing at stud these days, three milk­ing nan­nies would jus­tify the keep­ing of a male. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion (AI) is

now avail­able for goats, but it has not yet reached the level of pop­u­lar­ity that it has with cat­tle and pigs.

PIGS: It used to be stated that six sows were re­quired to jus­tify the keep­ing of a boar, but nowa­days peo­ple con­sider it for just two or three, for the sake of con­ve­nience and bio-se­cu­rity. AI in pigs is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward and you can carry out the process your­self, so it does pro­vide a re­al­is­tic and fairly re­li­able al­ter­na­tive. Se­men can be sent to you through the post from a spe­cial­ist breed­ing com­pany when re­quired, to­gether with dis­pos­able catheters. How­ever, it is best to use nat­u­ral ser­vice on maiden gilts.

CAT­TLE: I wouldn’t keep a bull on a small­hold­ing. AI in cat­tle is a main­stream pro­ce­dure that is cheap and re­li­able. It gives you ac­cess to some of the best bulls in the coun­try — both com­mer­cial and tra­di­tional na­tive breeds. A phone call to your lo­cal Genus branch will re­sult in a visit from an AI tech­ni­cian on the same day, al­though if you have a spe­cial re­quest for a spe­cific bull of a cer­tain breed you will prob­a­bly have to or­der se­men in ad­vance.

De­tect­ing oestrus

Iden­ti­fy­ing the point at which your an­i­mal is on heat or in sea­son and ready to mate can be tricky. With sheep it is not re­ally an is­sue, as usual prac­tice is to run the ram with the ewes for sev­eral weeks. How­ever, where you are con­sid­er­ing us­ing AI in the case of cat­tle and pigs, or if you are

A ca­sual visit to the friendly bull down the road is a thing of the past

in­tend­ing to take your nanny goat to a stud male, it is up to you to spot the signs.

GOATS: Nanny goats can be quite fran­tic when on heat, with con­stant high-pitched bleat­ing and much tail wag­ging. Other in­di­ca­tions in­clude en­large­ment and red­den­ing of the vulva, to­gether with some dis­charge. Where two or more fe­male goats are housed to­gether they may be seen mount­ing one an­other, al­though this be­hav­iour is not so of­ten ob­served as it is with cat­tle. The pe­riod of time dur­ing which the an­i­mal will ac­tu­ally be re­cep­tive may be very short — pos­si­bly as lit­tle as a few hours — so don’t leave it un­til the last minute be­fore mak­ing the nec­es­sary ar­range­ments to have her mated or you may miss the moment.

PIGS: Signs that a sow is on heat in­clude en­large­ment and red­den­ing of the vulva (al­though the colour change can be dif­fi­cult to spot in dark-skinned an­i­mals) and gen­eral ag­i­ta­tion. The be­havioural changes are more no­tice­able if there is a boar in the vicin­ity. Some sows are only in sea­son for a very brief pe­riod, but in others the signs may be ev­i­dent for sev­eral days be­fore she will ac­tu­ally stand to be served. To de­ter­mine readi­ness for mat­ing, ap­ply firm pressure to the sow’s back, at which point she should stand rock steady. From this point, she will re­main in sea­son for about 48 hours. As ovu­la­tion oc­curs dur­ing the sec­ond half of this pe­riod, don’t in­sem­i­nate her too soon. Whether us­ing AI or nat­u­ral ser­vice, the usual process is for the sow to be mated ap­prox­i­mately 12 hours af­ter stand­ing oestrus is first de­tected and again 12 hours later.

CAT­TLE: A cow on heat can be quite vo­cal. Be­havioural changes will be no­ticed at milk­ing time and there is usu­ally a slight drop in yield. In the field, she will mount other fe­male cat­tle and stand rock steady for them to mount her in turn. I have even had sex-crazed cows try­ing to jump on me, which is a bit un­nerv­ing. Also look out for the string of clear mu­cus from the vulva, al­though this isn’t al­ways easy to spot. Straw coloured, slightly bloody, tacky mu­cus ap­pears a few days af­ter oestrus, so spot it and you have missed your chance.

Ma­nip­u­la­tion of the cy­cle

The ma­nip­u­la­tion of an an­i­mal’s breed­ing cy­cle by the use of a pro­ges­terone re­leas­ing in­tra-vagi­nal de­vice known as a prid in cat­tle, or a sponge in sheep may sound like some­thing that only a com­mer­cial farmer would be in­ter­ested in, but it is com­monly used by small­hold­ers, par­tic­u­larly those who have to fit lamb­ing time around offhold­ing com­mit­ments, such as reg­u­lar em­ploy­ment. In cat­tle, the use of a prid en­ables fixed-time AI to be car­ried out, which takes all of the guess­work out of iden­ti­fy­ing oestrus. It is par­tic­u­larly use­ful in some cows who ha­bit­u­ally do not show very much in­di­ca­tion of be­ing on heat. It can also be used to kick start a cow’s nor­mal breed­ing cy­cle af­ter some sort of trauma, such as a dif­fi­cult calv­ing. Prids and sponges can be ob­tained from your vet and the in­ser­tion of them is a straight­for­ward pro­ce­dure that you can carry out your­self.

Usual prac­tice is to run the ram with the ewes

The boar is a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous an­i­mal that re­quires ex­pe­ri­enced han­dling

A boar is much bet­ter at de­tect­ing oestrus than a hu­man is

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion in cat­tle is a stan­dard pro­ce­dure

In­tra-vagi­nal sponges for use in sheep, to­gether with lu­bri­cat­ing gel, an­ti­sep­tic and two types of ap­pli­ca­tor

AI catheters for use in pigs. No­tice the spiral tip PRID for use in cat­tle (coin for scale)

A pair of heifers ex­hibit­ing typ­i­cal bulling be­hav­iour

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