Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How To Run A Sheep Stud For Fun & Profit

A few of our rams in better days when there was no drought and lots of grass.

OK. Got your Akubra and your Blunnies on? (Work boots for the initiated). Right then, here is the "Spring Rock Concise Course in Operating a Sheep Stud For Fun & Profit".

First you go out and buy an exorbitantly priced ram who catches your eye and says, "I'm the best one here. Ignore all those zero's at the end of my price tag and take me home with you. I promise to work hard, prove myself as a good sire and then, just when it will cause the most trouble drop dead in the paddock." Of course you don't hear the last part of the sentence because you are so wrapped up in his wonderfulness that it’s temporarily affected your hearing. So you take a deep breath, write the cheque and travel the hundreds of miles back to the farm where you carefully unload your newest addition to the stud and watch him tear across the paddock and introduce himself to the other rams, none of whom seem to be at all impressed with his wonderfulness. You may wince a few times as you watch a significant portion of the farm budget getting butted from one end of the paddock to the other, but you know that short of installing him in Justin's bedroom, The New Boy has to make peace with the old crowd and learn to survive out in the paddock where he will meet snakes, plague and pestilence on an almost daily basis.

So, you have your top grade ram. You settle him in for at least six weeks. Apparently rams feel the stress of their job even before they've done their job (if you are following me here) and he must spend a minimum of six weeks after his road trip from his home of origin to your farm, contemplating the task ahead and zoning out as only a sheep can. During this hiatus you sit at home worrying about all the nasties out there that can reduce your costly investment to dog food in the matter of days, and plan to spend all the money his lambs are going to bring in, providing the former doesn't happen of course.

Then the big day arrives! You have spent days or even weeks working out just which lucky ewes are going to be introduced to The New Boy and which lesser ladies are going to run with the other rams who have been slightly superseded by the new boy. It's not that these rams are necessarily of any lesser quality than The New Boy, they most probably are just as good and cost just as much as he did in their day. It's that he's THE NEW BOY and he promises to add a certain something to your stud that you haven't had before. If you think that is a bit vague, you're darned right it is. The New Boy is like all your dreams come true and the pot at the end of the rainbow all wrapped up in one woolly package.

You muster the rams and run them into the sheep yards. Once the whole mob is confined to this relatively small space they start flexing their muscles and playfully start butting one another. It's as if they know that only a chosen few are going to make the grade and get the coveted raddle harness, and they want to be the ones. The boys are run through a race where you must quickly and correctly identify the rams you are using for mating this year as they come hurtling towards you down the race. With a deft flick of the drafting gates to the left or the right the rams are separated into those that didn't make the cut and those that did. The unlucky ones needn't feel too bad. They are destined to be sold for flock rams and will have their day (or six weeks to be exact) on someone else's farm with someone else's ewes.

The holding pen is now full of the darlings of the stud. There they stand looking smug and winking at one another while you stand back and admire the supreme masculineness of them all. It is now time to get very personal. Their testicles must be checked for lumps and to ensure they are not damaged in any way. Failure to pass the squeeze test means that ram will not even have a chance to join the also rans as a flock ram. Thankfully all your A Team passes the test, even if their eyes bulged temporarily during the examination. It is now time to put the raddle harness on each boy.

A raddle harness consists of various lengths of webbing lead, joined together with metal rings and clips that go around the ram’s front legs and under his chest to do up over his withers (the shoulder blades for want of a better term). Once the raddle is in place the metal crayon holder should sit squarely in the middle of his chest. All to frequently the crayon holder doesn’t! It’s either way under his belly or up behind his left ear. This means that you are going to have to undo all those clips and re-position the harness around a ram who feels that he’d be happier somewhere else and refuses to co-operate. The ensuring harness fitting begins to take on aspects of an all in wrestling match, but finally it’s in place. The crayon is a large rectangular piece of blue wax that is clipped in place and will rub off on the ewe’s back end to show that she has mated with the ram. The ease with which you attach the raddle depends on a number of outside influences. These can include some or all of the following; the heat of the day, the attitude of the ram, the proximity of the waiting ewes, whether or not you have to be somewhere else in a few hours time, the look on the kelpies face as it sits outside the race thinking of better things. In short if you have all the time in the world to get those rams into those harnesses you will accomplish the job in no time at all. If, on the other hand, you have a very small window of time in which to get the boys dressed and out into the mating paddocks it could take all day. Once the harnesses are in place and each boy is sprayed with a small amount of sheep branding paint (to identify who’s who from a distance - you'll see why later in this lesson) The chosen boys are put aside in the shearing shed while the unlucky candidates for the job are returned to their paddock.

It’s now time to get the girls in. This usually entails quite a bit of work in getting them all to put in an appearance in the sheep yards. Invariably, just as you think you've rounded up the entire ewe population, you'll notice one solitary lady off in the distance grazing quietly without a care in the world. After the third or fourth time this happens it's not unheard of to toy with the idea of letting her stay barren this year, but a nagging little voice in your head (yes, by this time you are definitely hearing voices) keeps saying, "What if she's your best ewe - the one predestined to mate with The New Boy and produce a pair of the best ram lambs the industry has ever seen?" So you once again head off and round her up with the rest of the mob, only to find that she is the one you were toying with culling earlier in the year.

Oh well, after only a few stress-filled hours you now have all the girls together and heading for the sheep yards. This is where you are reminded of something that has slipped your mind. A mob of ewes has the combined IQ of a jellyfish, and not one of your brighter, go get-‘em jellyfishes either. While they have travelled the path to the sheep yards innumerable times they can't seem to remember how to get there. Those in the lead believe that it's over there to the left and head off that way accordingly. As you rev up the bike and try to head them off because the sheep yards are actually to the right, where they have always been, the girls at the back decided to do a U turn and see if it's back near where they came from. This to-ing and fro-ing goes on until the ewes are finally manoeuvred into the yards, or you give up and go and check land prices. Most sensible farmers have a couple of dogs to help out here, but Graeme is anti animal remember and eschews even the thought of going into business with a couple of Kelpies.

Once the girls are in the yards they need to be drafted according to the colour that has been sprayed on the top of their heads a few days previously. Remember the colour on the rams' heads? Now you can see what that was for. The ewes and ram are colour co-ordinated to ensure that everyone goes with the right group. The fun begins here because you have five different mating groups and a three way race. This entails double handling of a few of the groups but once that is finally sorted the rams are put in with the ewes or your choice and escorted to their nuptial paddocks looking somewhat like a group of punk rockers out for a walk in the park. And that should be that. In a well regulated world you would go out into the paddocks in six weeks time to find every ewe with the tell tale blue streak on her rear end and a satisfied look on the rams' faces.

But this is anything but a well regulated world. It is quite common for the ewes to object to your choice of mate for them. It's not that they have anything specific against the male in their paddock, he's quite cute in many ways, but the ram over in the other paddock!!! Wow! Now there is a ram to get any ewe’s heart a-flutter! The star-crossed ewe tends to spend her time up against the fence, ignoring the blandishments and downright propositioning of the ram in her paddock, while she lusts after the forbidden fruit in the much greener paddock a few paddocks away. Strangely enough it’s more likely to be The New Boy who doesn’t appeal to his harem – ewes obviously don’t appreciate quality when they see it. With any luck the ram of your choice will manage to convince her that she really has no other option and she too will wear the blue streak like a badge of honour.

Once the six weeks (or seven, or eight or nine weeks, depending on how busy you are with other things) is over, all the mobs are brought into the yards again. The rams are undressed, removed from the girls and put back in the bachelor quarters with all the other rams. And about time too, think the ewes. They are all (hopefully) in lamb and have better things to think about than the compliments and longing looks of a ram who has served his purpose and should have the decency to leave them alone now.

In your opinion the rams have definitely served their purpose (if you’ll excuse the pun), and will now wait for next year to roll around so they can do it all again. In the mean time they will eat, drink and be merry with the other bachelors and once again endure the daily perils mentioned above. But this time you don't worry about them. Not even about The New Boy. You are too busy planning for all the lambs that are going to arrive in five months time and worry about foxes, drought and heavy rains, all of which will seriously deplete you lambing percentages.

Ahh lambing... but that is another lesson entirely.