The Deep End
Tim Tyne weighs up the pros and cons of keeping a stud male
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.
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