Keeping Rams on the Homestead

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.

Housing

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.

Handling

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.

Kids

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.

Aggressive Rams

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.

Winter is Coming

The seasons are shifting. The air has a beautiful coolness about it after the oppressing heat of summer on the plains. We are loving it. It has reinvigorated us to get projects done and be outdoors.

The farm is in such a better place than it was a year ago. We moved to the new farm in June of last year and worked tirelessly, regardless of the triple-digit weather, all summer and through the fall, which was unseasonably warm and long (a blessing because we had so much to complete), so we could try to get humans and animals somewhat acceptably set up for winter. And we did get everyone acceptably set up. But there were definite areas that were lacking and that made caring for the animals through the winter cold and into and through birthing season harder.

The projects we have been able to accomplish this summer and fall have us heading into this second winter at the new farm in a much better place as far as human and animal housing goes. It should make for less work and everyone living more comfortably through the cold. We have two more small barn areas closed in for the sheep and goats that will be nice during storms and also serve us well during lambing/kidding. We have improved the poultry housing and built another “wing” on the poultry palace (another coop attached to the poultry barn) that is giving us a lot more options as we have young chickens and turkeys growing out and have increased our breeding flocks. And we have more hay storage areas to keep the hay protected from the wet weather.

We only have a few more things to accomplish before winter really sets in, which is still a month or so away, depending on what the weather does. Our first frost should be along here within the next couple of weeks. We are keeping an eye on the forecast, so we can bring in all the green tomatoes that are still on the vines to let them ripen in the root cellar. We also still have several cantaloupe in the garden and a butternut squash. The rest are done.

We have a small box planted with some late fall/winter plants that we plan to cover with a tent. But they didn’t sprout as well as we had hoped, so there isn’t much for season extending this year. It is not surprising, really. I have heard from gardeners from Canada, Colorado (High Plains and Front Range), Kansas, and Georgia – all who are experienced and have been in their location, gardening, for many years. And all of them are saying the same thing. This was one of the worst years for their garden. Since this was our first experience gardening in the High Plains, and we did straw bales instead of soil, I am really glad that we were able to harvest anything at all, especially considering what all these “old timers” are saying.

One of the projects we are trying to get done before winter hits is building the new garden. The straw bales are breaking down beautifully, and will provide an excellent base layer for the garden. The centers of the bales are so decomposed, in fact, that the bailing twine is suspended up in the air across from end to end.

We plan to put our farm compost on top of it. Over time it will compost more in the garden. Garden soil is like wine – it gets better with age. Our garden at our last homestead took at least 4 seasons before I felt the soil was getting good, and by the 9th season it was a thing of beauty. Some things just take time.

Another big project is putting up our firewood for winter. With prices soaring everywhere for everything, including propane and electricity, we are even more intent on being able to use the wood stove as much as possible to heat our home. We have started the process of putting up firewood, but still have a ways to go.

We are saving the long list of indoor projects for over the winter, and working outside as much as possible while the beautiful autumn weather holds.

Sheep Breeding Season

It is hard to believe, but it is time to breed the sheep again already. This will be our first season with 4 breeding rams and we have planned out which ewes each of them will cover. We are limited on our birthing space, so, to attempt to avoid hypothermic lambs and loss of any lambs, we are trying to space out the lambings (and thus the breedings) so that we only have a couple ewes due at a time. Experience tells us this will not go exactly as we plan, we humans don’t have as much control over these things as we wish we did, but we are hopeful it will line out pretty well and we will be able to have all the ewes in a dry, warm place for their lambings. Our first breeding group has been put together and our first breeding has already taken place. So we are off and running.

Since I didn’t get to blog much about this last lambing/kidding season, I decided to catch you up on what happened as far as lambing and kidding this last year…

Lambing/Kidding Season 2022

Since the new farm property was built to house adult horses, there were no enclosed barn areas, only loafing sheds. So we decided last winter to build what we call the birthing barn. It has 2 permanent jugs (jugs are sheep birthing stalls that are about 5ftx5ft) and a way to set up a 3rd temporary jug. We finished the birthing barn just in time for our first two ewes to move in and bless us with a birth of twins and then triplets all within 8 hours of each other. Both ewes did great and all the lambs were healthy and strong. It was an exciting start to the season.

We added a camera to the birthing barn this year. I am well-known as a low-tech person. But I must admit, the addition of a camera to the birthing area made SUCH a big difference in our lives. We were able to get so much more sleep, which was especially useful this year as we spent a lot of time at the pediatric hospital during lambing season and thus were not getting much sleep anyway. If you haven’t added one to your homestead yet, you should seriously consider it. I love it. No more hiking out to the barn every couple hours at night when we think a ewe or doe is close to giving birth. The camera is great.

Freya (Wensleydale) and her newborn ram lambs

We thought the next two females that we needed to bring up to the birthing barn were our two Nubian does, but one of our ewes surprised us. We had never had a surprise lamb born before. We keep a really close eye on everything during breeding season and keep very good records of each ewe and when she goes into heat and gets bred. This ewe had been bred 3 different times, coming into heat on the expected schedule for a ewe. So I marked the last breeding down as the one she got pregnant on and gave her a due date according to that. Little did we know that she had gotten pregnant before any of those heat cycles and breedings. Why she had “fake heats” on schedule and allowed the ram to breed her even though she was pregnant…we are not sure.

Because we had been in and out of the pediatric hospital with our son that month, and because we thought none of the ewes were due in that time period, we weren’t keeping a close eye on them and their symptoms. If we had, we would have noticed the udder development on this first-time mother. Instead, we went out to feed one morning and found a hypothermic ram-lamb, born out in the elements at 26F. Despite the fact that his mom was a young first-time ewe, she was doing her best to get him up and going. From what we could tell, he stood and nursed some before he laid down and became hypothermic. We rushed him into the house and started working on heating him back up. He was the worst case we have dealt with and we really didn’t expect him to make it. But, two hours later he was still alive, and we decided to re-unite him with his now-frantic mother so they could bond and he could hopefully get up and about on his legs. We had moved his mom into the birthing barn and we set up a heater and took turns sitting out there keeping an eye on him. He was still weak for a few days and definitely took longer to get going than our other lambs. But he survived and his mother bonded with him well.

Mabel (American Bond x BFL) and her mother Matilda (American Bond)

Next were the two Nubian does. The first doe’s first kid presented with just one leg coming. And Daniel wasn’t home. And I was sick with a nasty cold/cough. But that was OK, because the last couple of years, Sunshine has been doing more and more of the deliveries and trying to learn how to help when help is needed. So she was going to handle the delivery. She tried and tried, while Little Miss held the doe and I talked her through it, but she couldn’t figure out what was going on and finally I had to take over. I quickly saw why she was having so much trouble, it was quite a tangle in there – all legs and heads. It was triplets and two of them were tangled together, with one leg from one trying to come with the head of the other behind it. It took me awhile to figure it all out and I kept working through the legs and heads trying to figure out which went to which. What ended up making it so I could figure it out was that one had smaller legs (a doeling) and one had larger legs (a buckling). Once I realized that, I was able to get the front two legs and head of one and bring it forward and out. Then I went for the second one and it was pretty easy because the third was still in it’s sack so I could tell which was which, I just had to get its head to come around, it had gotten pushed back during the untangling. Then the third came fine. All three survived (praise the Lord) even though it took a while to get them out. The doe was fine too.

We were hoping for no problems with the second doe, but ended up with another difficult delivery. I was recovering from the nasty cough, but I had fractured 2 ribs from coughing so hard. Yes, apparently this is a thing, I went to the doctor and it was confirmed. So I was nursing those very painful fractured ribs under strict instructions to not do anything physically strenuous when this doe went into labor. And no one was home except Little Miss and I. The doe was taking forever, 5 hours had gone by with obvious labor but no pushing, and since she was an experienced Mom, we started to realize that something was wrong, but there wasn’t much that Little Miss could do on her own. I called to try to figure out the ETA on help arriving in the form of anyone in the family over the age of 7 without broken ribs. It was not looking promising. So I called our vet – he was out of town. Little Miss kept watch on the doe and she started laying down, giving a tiny push, and then getting up, and then repeating the process over and over. It was definitely looking like a stuck kid. Finally, she laid down, with her behind away from Little Miss’ view, and pushed over and over again. We thought she must be finally making some progress, but when she stood up and turned around there was just one huge head coming out, no legs. Little Miss yelled (via the birthing cam) for me to come help. Right then, Daniel arrived home. To save my ribs, Little Miss tried to do the delivery while Daniel held the doe and I gave Little Miss instructions. But the doe was pushing so very hard and the baby was so thoroughly wedged she could not get the head back in, nor could she get in to get the legs forward. It had been so long already and the kid’s head was swelling and we were starting to worry for the kid and any other kids inside, so fractured ribs didn’t matter – I had to help. It took quite awhile, and hurt oh-so-badly to work against the constantly straining mama. It was killing me, but I had to keep going because I didn’t want to lose any of them. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get that huge head back in so I could bring the legs around. Finally, I decided that I had to just try to get the legs around with the head out. It was tight and very rough on doe, kid, and I, but I was finally able to bring one leg around. At that point I remembered that our friend, who is very experienced with birthing goats, had told me that she has had several does successfully deliver a kid with one leg back. It had been so much time and work to get this far, that I decided to just pull with the leg back to get it out. I wasn’t even sure the kid was still alive, and the doe was going downhill. So I didn’t bother with the second leg, I just pulled the kid with the one leg and head out. It took a little resuscitation, but the large doeling recovered and survived. She was quickly followed by a small buckling. Praise the Lord, both kids and the doe were fine. I, on the other hand, was not. I was really really hurting. I messed up my back in my attempts to protect my ribs and was in so much pain between the two. I spent a few days in bed recovering and eventually was none worse for the wear. But 5 goat kids joined the 6 lambs born at that point and all were doing well.

Thankfully, the rest of the season went by without incident, and the birthing barn worked out great for each ewe to have a chance in a jug when it was her turn. We had 3 more singles born to the first-time moms, and another set of triplets, and another set of twins to experienced moms. Only 1 ewe didn’t take, and she was one of the ewe lambs born last year, so it was expected. We were very surprised that the other 3 ewe lambs born last year plus 2 other first-time ewes (not born last year) all took and lambed. Usually ewe lambs are about a 50/50 chance to get pregnant. So it was a good year as far as ewe lambs getting pregnant.

Daisy’s (East Friesian) ewe lambs

We will see how this new breeding season goes!

Productive Poultry

The second turkey hen completed her hatch! Two poults hatched. There were 3 eggs. So that is good. She is currently mothering them pretty well, though not as well as our other hen has been doing with her poults. The turkeys are definitely earning their keep! We have high hopes for next year, when we can set more eggs and thus have bigger hatches. But for now, we are content with our 5 poults.

I continue to try to get a photo of poults to share, but the turkey hens are super duper protective. Which is good. But it means that when I want a photo, this is all I get:

Our bantam Silkie hen has decided she is done raising the turkey poult that was rejected by the turkeys and that she raised for us. He is 8 weeks old now, and now she wants to set again. It is pretty late in the season, but we have a good set-up, so we decided to go ahead and let her set. We will be putting supplemental eggs in the incubator to make up for any infertility or loss. We really like this method of doing it because we end up with more chicks than the hen can generally hatch on her own but we don’t have to brood them because she does it for us. Earlier this year we set 15 total eggs, 6 under the hen, 9 in the incubator, and we ended up with 10 chicks, which she was able to successfully raise. We are collecting eggs now and will hopefully start the set this weekend.

Feels a bit like spring, with all these poultry hatches. Even though it is not the typical way to do it, we have always been fine with fall chicks, they make for more eggs come spring, so that will be nice. And the fall turkey poults will mean meat in the middle of winter, which will also be nice.

Garden Firsts

After having gardened for over 17 years now, it is strange to be experiencing so many new things in the garden. But the climate at the new farm has been so very different than our previous farm that we are having many experiences in our gardening that are firsts for us.

We harvested our first ever watermelon this week!

It was a little bit under-ripe, but we are learning how to tell when they are ready. It was still delicious and felt like a celebration. We have another watermelon and several cantaloupe coming on. Melons! We have never successfully grown melons before.

We also have harvested several pumpkins and a spaghetti squash as well. It is our first spaghetti squash ever. We did grow some pumpkins when we lived in the mountains, but they were few and far between and very small. These were small, but there were several and they were ready much earlier than we are used to. We struggled to get cucumbers to grow in the mountains, but here they are very happy.

When we lived in the Rockies we would harvest maybe 5 tomatoes ripe off the plants, but pretty much all our tomatoes had to come inside green due to the early frosts. We would let them ripen in the basement through the fall. At the new farm we are picking tomatoes from the plants every couple of days and have been for almost a month now! The water-bath canner has been busy canning up all the tomatoes!

As you can see, all these firsts have to do with a warmer climate and plants that like warmer climates. The high Rockies was a cold place to garden, and our harvest reflected that. Our new climate is hot, and it is fun to be learning new veggies and having new experiences due to that.

We are also continuing to build the raised beds for next years’ garden. We are doing them one at a time as the space in the straw bale garden opens up because of harvest. Here you can see our most recent box. We are building them from 4x4s and pallet wood. We cut slots in the 4x4s and slide the pallet wood down into the slots. This is cutting our costs by a ton. We will be breaking up the spent straw bales to create the bottom layer of compost for the boxes. At this point we just kind of tossed them in there.