For those of you who are not shepherds, the title of this blog may require a bit of explanation. We are not discussing some form of writing implement that must be squeezed to get the ink out. No, in the shepherding world, a squeeze pen is a tool for bringing peace to a flock. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start at the beginning.
On Friday I visited my good friend and fellow shepherdess Melissa Wubben of Oak Creek Farm to exchange a few sheep. I was bringing her a new ram, Prague — he’s Ireland’s son and will be breeding at Oak Creek this fall. In my trailer on the return trip were three sheep for our own flock: moorit ewe lamb Portia, CVM ram Nels, and Romney ram Luthor. I purchased Nels because of his very correct body and his gorgeous fleece (which placed third in its class of finewools at the Iowa State Fair Wool Competition last Thursday!), and I’m borrowing Luthor (originally of our own breeding). He will return home after the end of breeding season.
When I arrived home, Portia could go straight into my flock since Melissa’s flock is so closely related to mine and we swap sheep often enough that they are like a single flock split by a bit of a drive. The rams were loaded into the Sheep Barn, where we knew they would be well looked after by our farm sitter during our two-day weekend absence. We loaded up the trailer for deliveries into Wisconsin over the weekend, and once loaded, we headed inside to pack for the trip.
During our trip through Wisconsin, I picked up yet another CVM ram, this one a ram lamb from a flock dissolution who we named Parker. When we arrived home, we unloaded him into the barn with the other new rams. I put him in his own pen for a bit so that he could settle down after the trip.
Not only did we need to get these three boys integrated together, but we also needed to incorporate them into our larger ram flock. The problem is that rams are called “rams” for a very good reason: they have a tendency to ram other sheep, people, and objects whenever they feel the need. When introduced to other rams, the immediate question in the group is who will lead this newly integrated ram flock? And the way they figure that out is through intimidation and fighting — or in other words, by ramming.
Keep in mind that ramming can mean injury or death to any of those involved. I’ve been hit by a charging ram more than once, and the first time it happened to me, I thought I’d been hit by a car in my own pasture. I was literally looking around to see where the vehicle had come from when I realized that it was actually my own three-year-old bottle boy. I have since learned never to keep a bottle ram intact, for just this reason: they become too familiar with people and think they can manage us just like any of their rammy friends.
Although all of our adult rams are very well-tempered with people, they still work out their issues among themselves by ramming. As one example of how dangerous that can be, I visited with a shepherdess this past weekend who that morning had lost a four-year-old ram. He and the other ram in the flock were celebrating the cooler weather, but he was hit at just the wrong angle as they knocked heads together. He dropped dead in the field — just like that.
Because I know that rams work out their pecking order via ramming, the obvious tool to prevent injury and death is the squeeze pen (photo below). A squeeze pen is a small pen, just big enough that the rams can walk a bit, lie down, eat, and turn around. It is not so big that any of them can back up and run at another. Because the squeeze pen is so small, the main things the rams do to intimidate each other are swing their heads and shove. This behavior can last for mere hours, particularly on very hot days when none of them want to get any hotter, or it can last for days in the cooler weather during breeding. Eventually the rams settle their issues and everyone knows who’s boss and where they stand in the flock hierarchy. At this point, when the shepherd visits the ram flock, they are all lying around or eating and everyone is relaxed; the squeeze pen has done its job.
This morning, my visit to the Sheep Barn was exactly like this – everyone was alive and happy. Both the new rams and the guys in the existing flock were all relaxed in their squeeze pen and many were cudding. The previous issues of shoving, dominance mounting, and chortling at each other were over. I opened the pen at the back to release them out into the pasture, and they meandered out, ignoring all but their best friends. In minutes, they were out grazing as one large ram flock.
Our squeeze pen — about twenty by thirty feet in size — held nearly forty guys, with two bale feeders to break up the space. We’ve had bigger and smaller squeeze pens, but the primary concern is to prevent the damage that rams can do to each other — and this one did exactly that.