Voices From the Farm: Dealing With Rams

Editor’s Note:
With respect to Lea and our other writers, as editor I usually don’t make introductory comments on the columns we publish. In this case, I would like to make a couple of points. First, although this story may be of interest to our general readers, I’m darned sure it will be of special interest to our friends raising sheep! And second, I must divulge a bit of information: at the time of this confrontation with a barn full of rams, Lea was 76 years old, about 5 foot 2 inches tall, and weighed about 115 pounds. She is certainly the most courageous shepherdess in Minnesota!


Autumn 2002

I had planned to cut back on the number of ewes in my flock this year. To that effect, in early October, I sold 22 of my older ewes to another producer looking to expand his flock. This left me with 28 of the younger ewes, a nice comfortable number to lamb out in the spring.

However, the past spring I had a bumper crop of lambs, 49 of them ewe lambs, which made me happy, as I’ve always been able to sell them as breeding stock at a very good price. Ah yes! Again, best laid plans of mice and men… to date I had not sold one solitary ewe lamb!  No doubt this was partly due to the depressed farm economy. People were siting tight, trying to hang on until things got better.

There was another factor too: in an attempt to grow the shrinking sheep industry, the USDA was, for the second year in a row, paying sheep producers $18 per head for retaining ewe lambs in their breeding flock. Naturally this led to a reduction in the demand for purchased ewe lambs. I too, had determined to keep my ewe lambs, if I did not sell them for breeding, since they were from such exceptional stock. My ewe flock had had a lambing average far over 200% for many years.

Little Mac and Big Mac

So, it was time to think about the rams that would be needed. I had 3 mature rams – a 3-year old, 2-year old, and a yearling. These were confined in an 8′ square pen an the north end of the lower barn level. At the south end of that level were 8 ram lambs, some of which were sold, but had not yet been picked up, and two which I would retain to breed my ewe lambs. One of these two was an exceptionally big, handsome specimen out of my best 4-year old Texel-cross ewe. I was extremely proud of him, and already anticipated the nice progeny he would produce when paired with the crop of ewe lambs. Those decisions having been made, I turned my attention to the mature rams.

Since the big Texel/Columbia-cross 3-year old had no daughters in the mature flock, he would be the ram to use there. It followed then, that on a mild day in early November, I set about getting the big ram out.

The first thing to accomplish was to move the mature ewe flock up to a pasture fairly close to the barn, so when the ram was let out he would have no trouble locating them. Just to be on the safe side, I set up a portable electric fence from the northeast corner of the barn, down to the ewe pasture, forming a lane so that once the ram was let out the North barn door, there was nowhere else for him to go except down to the pasture.

Next, I moved the 45 ewe lambs into the north pasture, beyond the windbreak, where they would be safely out of harm’s way.

Then I went back to the barn and surveyed the situation, which was complicated by the 8 young rams remaining in the south end of the lower level, thus blocking the exit through the south barn door. I would have to get the big ram up the steep narrow ramp to the upper barn level, where I could let him out the north barn door.

Up the Down Staircase (Ramp)

First I had to fence off the young rams with hog panels in the south end of the lower level to avoid a big “broouhaha” when the big ram was let out. That done, I turned my attention to the big rams’ pen, and shoveled enough manure to get the gate open.

Of course, the two rams I wanted to keep in the pen were determined to come out, and the one I wanted to come out was just a determined not to! Obviously, I was going to have to get in this pen with 3 big rams, not the happiest prospect! I decided my best hope was to tie up the two rams that were determined to come out, and then deal with the reluctant one. This proved to be fairly exciting, but I finally did get them both tied up on opposite sides of the pen without getting myself mashed.

The recalcitrant ram still would not come out. I had no faith in my ability to out-muscle a 300-pound ram, so I fell back on the never fail “white grain bucket.” Sheep can spot one of these from a half mile away and be there trampling you, and your grain, in what seems like a split second!

That ploy worked, and the ram came out of the pen, but now I had to maneuver him up the steep ramp to the upper barn and out the door.

I backed up the ramp with the grain bucket in front of me and the ram following with his head in the bucket, eating grain. We were almost to the north door, when one of the tied up rams slipped his rope, was out of the pen and up the ramp intent on getting some of that grain!

A fracas ensued and all three of us wound up outside! I somehow managed to hang onto my grain bucket through it all, then scrambled back through the barn door, and pulled the door shut behind me, safe temporarily. But if there was one thing I did not want at this point, it was two big rams on the loose and free to have at it! You might think that having been penned together for months, this would not be a problem.

Not so! They had been slamming and bashing each other daily, but in the confines of a small pen they couldn’t do a whole lot of damage. Now, out in the open, it was just a matter of moments until they forgot the distraction of the grain. Both started backing up until they were 25 to 30 feet apart, and then came at each other like freight trains! Charges like this can end up with at least one dead ram, so I started shaking the grain bucket and opened the door a bit.

Of course then they were both trying to get back in the door. I finally managed to maneuver the unwanted ram in the door, back down the ramp, and into the pen… all with the aid of the “white grain bucket,” and this time I shut the gate to the pen!

Now, I at least had the ram out, so I went to see where he was. He was nowhere in sight, and by this time it was beginning to get quite dark. I figured he had headed down to the fence where the ewes were, and thinking I would have to open the gate so he could get in with the ewes, I limped down there. No ram!

I was totally stymied, because I had put up the electric fence so when he was once out of the barn, he had nowhere to go but down to the ewes!

To shorten this long story, it turned out he had gone to the northeast corner of the barn where it joined a 5-foot retaining wall which ran along the driveway. At the point where my electric fence joined the northeast corner of the barn, the ram leaped off the wall, landed beyond the fence which was supposed to stop him, went to the far south side of the barn, jumped over a 4 1/2 foot gate, and got in with the 8 ram lambs!

There he was, when I finally found him, squaring off with the beautiful ram lamb I was so proud of, and who was destined to be the new flock sire. Before I could do anything to prevent it, they collided full force!

The young ram went down, and stayed down. He was alive but, at the very least, had a concussion. There was nothing I could do then except grab my grain bucket, get the big ram out of there, and back up the ramp to the upper barn before he did any more damage!

I decided to leave him shut in the upper barn and go down and open the gate to the ewe pasture, knowing they would dash up to the barn, and then when he was let out he would be right in the midst of the ewes, and that would be the end of it.

It also happened that sometime that afternoon, our cropland renter had started combining corn in the field across the ravine from the north pasture, where the ewe lambs were locked in – safely out of harm’s way! About the time that I opened the gate to the ewe’s pasture and turned them out – amidst that hubbub – the renter and his noisy combine roared onto the lowest strip of corn, which was closest to the ewe lambs. They panicked, charged through an electric fence, and joined the mature ewes in their mad dash to the barn!

Of course this was unbeknownst to me! I hied myself back up to the barn in the darkness, let the ram out into the mob of ewes and was standing in the doorway thinking, “Finally!” Then Sean drove in, stopped at the fence I had erected earlier in the day, and in the illumination from his headlights, I spotted a green ear tag – a ewe lamb!  And then another… and another.

I certainly did not want the ewe lambs in with a ram at this juncture or they would be lambing at the same time as the mature ewes. And certainly not with this ram, who was too big, and father to some of the ewe lambs! It was a long night before we caught every ewe lamb and had them safely shut in the barn!

Shepherding is such a serene occupation!

The young ram that tangled with the boss ram was able to get to his feet the next day, but just barely, and he was very unstable in his hind legs for some time. A ram without good hind legs is worthless.

However, a couple months later, he seemed to be much recovered. As far a using him to breed the ewe lambs, I sold them all – along with a couple ram lambs – to a young Amish man from Riceville, IA, just about a week before they were due to be bred!

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2 comments to Voices From the Farm: Dealing With Rams

  • Wow, what an adventure! So glad the editor clarified how petite you are and how strong the lambs are. You have done so much and through your stories, brought an appreciation of all that is involved in providing food for our tables. You have much to be proud of. I think after that adventure, I would have said I want to go retire! I didn’t even think about in-breeding and rotating the stock etc… Again, Wow, what an adventure!

    • Lea McEvilly

      Sands,

      Glad I don’t have to live that day over again, except in memory. What a weird day1 Not to mention exhausting.

      My editor didn’t know it, but the rams in the picture were two of my early “wool breeds” rams, which were much smaller than the rams in the story, which were “meat breeds,” much bigger than those in the picture, 350 to 400 lbs., which made the day that much more interesting to deal with… not1

      I have my next story all worked out in my head, but just have to get it on paper.

      Thanks for your comments, always appreciated!

      Lea