This week, one of our rams damaged a fence (and hurt his face in the process) due to his raging hormones and breeding season. There weren’t even any ewes nearby, he just wanted to fight with the immature rams on the other side of the fence. Based on the damage, they weren’t wanting to fight with him so much – wisely so since he is nearly twice their weight. He busted a 2×6 and bent a heavy gauge wire cattle panel. Not to mention cutting his face up.
This is not our first time dealing with this, and is definitely not the worst damage we have had. So I thought it was a good time to discuss rams on the homestead.
I get a lot of questions from new homesteaders and homesteaders with children about keeping rams (or bucks, or bulls, or machos – male alpacas)…any intact male livestock…on the homestead. We only have ever kept rams, so I will speak to them specifically, though the concept of keeping intact males on the homestead is similar across all species with some specific details per the specific species.
Intact males are dangerous. There is no way around that concept. And anyone who does not acknowledge that they are dangerous is putting themselves and potentially others in danger. Of course there is always that one exception out of a thousand…but we are not speaking to that. That being said, they are totally manageable with the right set-up and practices. But the first and foremost thing that must always be in your mind when dealing with them is that they are dangerous. By remembering that fact, you can keep yourself and everyone else safe.
The first issue to deal with when keeping intact males is their housing. They need different housing than your basic adult female or castrated male. Specifically with the fencing. Rams are a 300lb (approx) creature that is a lot of muscle, bathed in testosterone, with a battering ram for a skull. As you can see above, they are able to bust up fencing pretty easily. We have even had a ram bust a 4×4 post in half with his head. We have had them break gates right off their heavy-duty hinges, and even break the heavy-duty metal hinges. They have a shocking amount of power. It makes me shudder to even think of the power that a bull has now that I have seen the power a ram has. So, keep in mind the power as you are planning your housing and fencing.
We have found that, for the most part, using 4×4 wood posts set at least 2 feet in the ground, 2×6 rails, and heavy-gauge cattle panels as fencing works and holds them. We do have to do repairs on occasion, like the fence this week. But as you can see he didn’t get through the fence, so the other sheep were safe from him. Even the ram that broke the 4×4 post, didn’t get through the fence since the heavy-gauge cattle panel kind of held the fence together even though it was bent up like crazy. Putting the posts closer together, and using 2×6 uprights halfway between each post can help create a very secure fence. Whatever type you use, make sure it is strong.
Height also matters. Rams will climb/jump fences when they really want to get to the other side. Ram fencing needs to be at least 4.5 feet high to really be sure they can’t go over. Higher if you have a tall breed.
Another thing to consider are the gates. You need to use heavy-duty gates that have heavy-duty attachments (hinges and latches). You also need to choose latches that can’t easily be rattled open. A ram will paw at, and head butt a gate repeatedly. We have had them do this enough that the vibration “rattled” the latch open.
It is best to keep the rams housed far from the ewes. If you only have one ram, you need to keep a wether (castrated male) with him so he won’t be lonely. When housing several rams together, keep them as far from the females as possible since being close will cause them to fight with each other constantly and will lead to injuries and potentially death of the lower-ranking rams. When you split your rams up into the breeding groups with the females for the year, it is best to not have them along shared fences, meaning one group on one side of the fence and another breeding group on the other side of the same fence. The rams will want to fight each other through the fence and will break the fence, or hurt themselves, or hurt each other.
As with many animal topics, there are a couple of schools of thought about handling rams. Some people like to bottle raise rams and make them as friendly as possible. There is also the concept of not handling them at all and keeping them “wild.” We have been around both types of rams (the very friendly and the very wild ones) and we found both these practices to lead to dangerous rams. We prefer to keep our rams not-so-friendly, but not wild either. We want them to be used to humans and able to be handled when needed for vet care and hoof trimming and such, but we don’t want them coming up to us to be pet like our ewes do. When they are lambs, we let their mothers raise them. We spend a lot of time in the pen with all the ewes and lambs, petting the ewe lambs and handling them, but we purposefully don’t pet the ram lambs and only handle them when necessary. This has led to rams that are used to our presence, but don’t have a desire to come to us for affection or anything. The rams raised like this have been our safest rams. As adults they keep their distance, but don’t run through a fence in a crazed fear when we go into their pen.
If you don’t have someone on the homestead that is big and strong enough to wrestle a ram when needed then you need to set up a system that includes a catch chute so that you can catch and restrain the ram(s) when needed. Every animal needs to be handled at some point, and you can’t just not give the males the care they need because they are hard to handle. A ram will need his feet trimmed a few times a year, plus annual shots, and then the potential vet visit for a more serious issue. The ram above that cut up his face needed to have ointment put on the wound to help it heal up. You have to have a safe way to handle the rams when needed.
The number one rule when in a pen with a ram is do not take your eyes off of the ram. Not even for a second or two. The number two rule is to keep your distance and make them keep theirs. Rams are strong, and fast, but when charging they can’t change directions very fast. So, as long as you keep your eyes on them you will see them start the charge in time to jump up on the fence, or to jump to the side at the last minute before they get you. Never underestimate them or grow complacent in keeping yourself alert when you are in the pen with them. Even routine feeding time can become a chance for you to get hurt if you aren’t paying attention. And a ram who has been calm and not even hinted at coming after you can one day decide he doesn’t want you in his presence.
Rams and kids don’t mix. If you are going to keep intact male livestock and have kids you need to be very careful and put specific plans in place to keep everyone safe. No kids in ram pens – ever. And no kids in any pen that includes a ram during breeding season.
All rams have the potential to hurt you and be aggressive. But that is different than having an aggressive ram. if you have a ram that is continually aggressive you need to get rid of it. You are breeding that aggression into your lines and will continue to have more aggressive rams. Additionally, it is not worth the risk to keep an aggressive ram. It is also not good for him because you are less likely to provide him with the needed care if he is aggressive. Don’t keep a chronically aggressive ram.
Most rams are not as aggressive their first year of life. Don’t let this cause you to be complacent. But understand that they definitely get more aggressive as they reach their full maturity their second, and sometimes third breeding season. Sometimes, using only first-year rams for breeding and then butchering them for meat and replacing with first-year rams again before the next breeding season can be a way to keep from having to deal with as much ram aggression. You still should follow all the ram suggestions above, but you will most-likely not have as many ram aggression issues. There are downfalls to this plan as well, but it works well for some homesteaders.
Keeping intact males on the homestead can be safe, when handled correctly. Always keep in mind that any intact male can be dangerous, and plan accordingly to keep yourself and your livestock safe.