In their natural state, sheep are seasonal breeders; offspring are born at the time most favorable for their survival. In some domestic sheep, the breeding season has been altered both naturally and through the use of hormones.
Normal Breeding Habits of Sheep
Age of puberty. Ewes typically reach puberty at 5 to 12 months, depending on breed, nutrition, and date of birth. Anestrous period (reproductive inactivity). This is the period when ewes normally do not demonstrate estrus (heat). Three types of anestrous are observed in ewes: seasonal (influenced by length of day), lactation (influenced by the sucking stimulus of lambs), and postpartum.
Length between estruses, or heat periods. The normal cycle for ewes is approximately 17 days between heat periods. However, it can vary from 14 to 19 days. Duration of estrus, or heat period. The heat period usually lasts 30 to 35 hours, with a range of 20 to 42 hours. Ovulation occurs late in the period.
Gestation period. The normal gestation period of ewes is approximately 147 days, ranging from 144 to 152 days. The medium-wool breeds and meat-type breeds ordinarily have a shorter gestation period than do the fine-wool breeds. High temperatures and high nutrition levels may shorten the gestation period two or three days. Ewes bred to white-faced, wool-breed rams may have a slightly longer gestation period than those bred to black-faced, meat-type rams.
Breeding ewe lambs. Ewe lambs that breed and lamb as yearlings generally have a greater lifetime production than ewes that have their that first lamb as 2 year olds. Since the onset of puberty depends largely upon body weight, ewe lambs should be provided adequate levels of nutrition to reach at least two-thirds of mature weight before breeding. Also, lambs born in winter or early spring are more likely to exhibit heat the first year than are lambs born later. Separate ewes that lamb as yearlings from mature ewes, and manage and feed them so that the yearling ewes can grow to their maximum potential size.
Ewe lambs and yearlings are normally rather shy breeders. For best results, breed them separate from older ewes. In some cases, it may be better to use rams of smaller breeds on young ewes to minimize the chance of lambing difficulties.
Effects of Environment
Sexual activity in sheep is primarily controlled by the ratio of daylight to dark. Estrus becomes more frequent as the days become shorter. In general, fertility is highest and most efficient when ewes are bred in September, October, or November; ewes bred at this time generally produce the highest percentage of multiple births.
High temperatures are detrimental to fertility, embryo survival, and fetal development. This is the biggest objection to fall lamb production. High temperatures at breeding can reduce conception rate. Heat stress during gestation impairs fetal development and can cause lambs to be significantly smaller at birth.
The introduction of a ram near the end of the anestrous period appears to psychologically stimulate ewes. It brings about earlier ovulation and estrual activity. The ram can be either fertile or surgically sterilized. Rams should be kept with the ewes for about 10 to 14 days and
removed from the flock before breeding begins. Then, at the beginning of the breeding season, rested fertile rams that are intended to sire the lamb crop can be introduced. The stimulation does not occur when rams are placed with ewes earlier, or when rams are simply left with the ewes continuously.
Effect of Nutrition
Nutrition has a direct bearing upon reproductive performance. Ewes kept in acceptable condition before breeding normally produce more lambs if they are flushed, or given the chance to gain weight before and during the breeding season. They can be flushed with rested pastures or by supplementation. Begin flushing three weeks before breeding and, if possible, continue through the first cycle (approximately 17 days).
Flushing ewes is most effective when they are mated early in the breeding season. Since ovulation rate is near a maximum during the middle of the season, flushing at this time is not as beneficial. The results of flushing are quite variable. Sometimes, when farm flock ewes are already on a high nutrition level before the breeding season, flushing may not affect ovulation or lambing percentage.
Nutrition affects total lifetime productivity of sheep by influencing mature size. Well-developed ewes consistently have higher lamb crop percentages than smaller ewes. Fat ewes, however, are typically less fertile, do not respond to flushing, and may experience more embryonic death loss.
Ewes grazed on legume pastures, such as alfalfa and clover, may at times be less fertile. Under some conditions, the estrogen content of these legumes is related to reproductive disorders. Breeding dates may be delayed and conception rate reduced when ewes are on pastures that have a high estrogen content. However, the estrogen content of legumes declines during the later stages of maturity.