Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ram trouble

It was time to give all the sheep their tetanus booster shots. This annual chore needs to be done before lambing, to make sure their immunity is at its strongest before all the blood and trauma of parturition. Accordingly, once fresh vaccine arrived in the mail -- it comes very quickly, and in spiffy insulated mailer bags -- I got to work bringing all the ewes and ewe-lambs into the barn and confining them for easy capture.

The first part went well. First I lured the ram out of his stall with some grain and quickly boarded up his entrance, trapping him in his outside pen. I did this because I didn't want him to be close to the action when it began.

Then it was time for the ewes and lambs. After a winter of not being handled much, they were trusting and hungry for grain and went easily into the main pen to grab a few handfuls of sweet feed, scattered in couple of tubs on the floor. I simply opened the gate between the sheep's pen and the barn floor, dropped the feed on the ground, walked out of the front door, closing it behind me, and then quietly went around the back and in the back door. I was able to close the gate again, trapping them all neatly in the main part of the barn. From there they went easily into the second stall, where they had less room to run around and panic.

My mistake was not counting them at this point.

Aimee then showed up with the vaccine. She always handles the syringes, leaving my hands free to catch each sheep and wrestle them onto their backs. She then passes me the syringe and I quickly give the individual animal their shot, a subcutaneous injection in one or another of the four bald spots sheep have at the inside of the top of each leg, the sheep equivalent of the human armpit. It's all very smooth and practiced, and doesn't stress the animals out too much.

It was about the fifth or sixth animal into the chore. I'd just caught another sheep and flipped it on its back, and was moving legs and fleece apart looking for a good spot for the needle, when I was suddenly dumbfounded by the mysterious appearance of a set of testicles where an udder should have been!

My first thought was that we had somehow mis-sexed one of our ewe-lambs, and had instead accidentally kept a ram-lamb through the winter thinking it was a ewe. That thought soon passed as Aimee began laughing at my stupification. The animal I was holding was Shaun the ram. He must have jumped over his fence after being confined to his outside pen and joined the main herd in the barn. Aimee took a quick look outside and confirmed: no ram in the pen.

He needed the booster too, so he got it, and was then bundled unceremoniously back into his stall.

The rest of the job went well, and then it was time to find out how the ram had gotten out. It was simple enough. The snow being so deep this year, it had piled up next to the barn, reducing the effective height of the fence. It was only two feet tall at one point, not enough to hold him if he was even slightly motivated. He must have figured out that the rest of the sheep were getting extra grain and decided to join the party.

This was obviously not a situation that could be allowed to continue, and so I went looking for an extra bit of fence with which to increase the effective height of the outside pen. It was as I was fitting this that the real trouble started. Shaunie decided to start ramming me through the fence while I was working, and succeeded in bending the fence material, not that easy because it was quarter-inch "cattle panel" stuff, as well as knocking over the tool box, spilling all the screws and bits into the snow, and bruising my leg to boot.

My first reaction was to hit him in the head with the screwgun to prevent a second bruising. This didn't faze him much. He just looked vaguely upset, as if he didn't understand why I was reacting so violently to a little mild head-butting. He backed up for another charge.

The second reaction was more sensible, which was to jump the fence and tackle him before he could make that charge. Then I simply pulled him into the barn and pushed him into another stall and locked him in before going back to my fencing.

Once the fence was safely completed I threw some food in his bowl and opened the gate to the second stall, thinking he'd go easily back to his pen. Big mistake. Instead of going after the food, he went after the ewes, leaping the inside gate like a steeplechaser. After casing him around the snow filled paddock a couple of times and realizing there was no profit in that, I went for a rope, lured all the animals back in the barn with yet more sweet feed, caught Shaun with the rope, separated him, and then confined him back in his pen. This all sounds very easy, but it actually took about twenty more minutes of sheep rugby to achieve.

The whole business left me feeling not a little battered and with a new-found respect for the hurdling capabilities of a full-grown yet still youthful ram.

I was ready to make ram-burger out of him, but we need to keep him for most of the rest of this year. Not a minute longer than we need to, though. Given that we don't breed yearling ewe-lambs and switch out our rams every two years, there's an eleven-month period every three years when we are "between rams." The next such period begins this fall, once Shaunie-ram has done his work of impregnating all the ewes we have that he isn't directly related to.

I can't wait.

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