Armstrong offers students hands-on learning opportunities at UD’s Webb Farm

larry armstrong at webb farm with the happy sheep at canr university of delawareAs he took night classes in ornamental horticulture at the University of Delaware, Larry Armstrong realized something about the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) of which he had been previously unaware — the college had a livestock farm.

Having grown up on a 400-acre farm with sheep, beef cattle and horses, Armstrong said to himself that if a job ever opened up on the farm, he would jump at the opportunity.

Sure enough, in 1997, not a year after he started taking classes, a farm assistant position became open and Armstrong applied and set himself off on an 18-year journey that sees him now serving as farm manager for UD’s Webb Farm. There, he oversees 20 beef cows, around 50 sheep and six horses.

“It’s a great multi-species farm and I started doing a lot of research and learning about multi-species grazing and actually breaking up the parasite cycle. We’ll put cows out first and that will end the life cycle of a certain parasite that affects sheep, and then the horses can come through. They all graze a little bit differently. That’s been working really well and it’s beneficial for each species involved,” said Armstrong.

Animal health and natural resource management are two of the large priorities on the farm, but perhaps most important is the education component for UD undergraduate students. “That’s really why we’re here,” Armstrong said. “We want to show them how we’re doing the right things, the right way.”

At the Webb Farm, students from freshmen in the introductory animal and food sciences laboratory classes through seniors working on their capstone courses — as well as volunteers who work at the facility — get to experience hands-on learning opportunities with the animals, something that Armstrong said is vital to the farm’s success.

“So many universities with agriculture colleges of our size have gotten rid of or downsized their farms and it’s a huge disservice,” Armstrong said. “It’s awesome and it’s amazing to have the farm. The number one thing I hear from undergraduates and alumni is that their hands-on experience here, whether it’s been on Webb or in the dairy, has really allowed them to apply their knowledge and to better understand through problem-based learning. What they’ve learned has been invaluable.”

Armstrong noted that he recently heard from a colleague that a CANR alumna who is now at veterinary school said her class is currently learning how to trim sheep’s hooves, something that she learned at the farm as a freshman.

“It’s great when we can give them that foundation, and it’s really about that foundation because, especially working with the animals, a big part of it is the confidence,” Armstrong said. “If you’ve got a big cow and she’s breathing in your ear and you’re trying to work with her and give her medication, it can be a little unnerving. A lot of it is just practice and building that confidence. We try to give them that experience here because it’s hard to find.”

Farm changes

Armstrong said he has seen a lot of positive change over the years on the farm and one thing he is proudest of is the fact that he and Scott Hopkins, farm superintendent, were able to plant trees along the Cool Run stream corridor that runs through the farm and see those trees grow.

“We called it ‘Making Cool Run Cool Again,’ as cool water supports more aquatic life and biodiversity,” Armstrong said. “When the water heats up, it grows algae, lowering available dissolved oxygen and riparian buffers [a vegetated area near a stream] help prevent this by shading the water and capturing nutrients. I can go on and on about how awesome trees and buffer zones are. We started planting trees there and did two or three phases. Some of the oldest trees go back to that first summer I worked here in 1998, and they’re beautiful big oak trees now, so it’s pretty cool.”

Armstrong is also proud of the fact that the farm started a compost operation about 10 years ago, taking all the organic material generated and composting it, then reapplying it on the parts of the farm that can best use the matter.

“We always pick the field with the lowest organic matter and focus on that. That really helps lock up the nutrients. We’re not putting raw manure out on the field, we’re composting it and locking it up,” said Armstrong, who added that one of the things he finds fascinating about composting is watching up to 20 tons digest and work down to half of that.

“It’s amazing. It just slowly biodegrades and it’s beautiful stuff. That’s the new thing I geek out on is the compost, that’s what we’re sort of experimenting with. We keep data and have sheets from 10 years worth of temperatures on this stuff,” said Armstrong.

Well-rounded students

Being well-rounded and well-versed on a multitude of topics, from pasture rotation to animal health to composting, as well as being able to adapt and think outside the box, are among the core tenets that Armstrong hopes to instill in the students who come through Webb Farm during their time at UD.

“It’s really great to see them apply what they’ve learned and be able to problem solve because I don’t want to be that guy who is like, ‘Do this, this and this and don’t ask questions.’ They need to learn how to figure it out because it’s biology, there’s no constant, there’s no absolute. Things are always changing, we always have these X-factors come up and that’s exciting. If you can think it out, it really teaches them to problem solve and I think that’s a big thing a lot of students are missing these days,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong also said that his goal in exposing students to life on the farm is to help them become not only great veterinarians and farm managers in the future, but also more well-rounded as individuals.

“They can be brilliant scholars but so many people are missing that agricultural foundation now. It used to be a given. Almost everyone came or knew somebody and did some farm work, but we’ve shifted almost the other way,” Armstrong said. “There are suburban areas growing and our farms are getting bigger and there’s less need for labor, which is more efficient, but you miss some of those nuances, for sure. It’s all connected, and I think it’s going to make them not only great veterinarians and farm managers but also good people because they’re learning where their food comes from, whether it’s vegetables or animals. They’re learning the foundation and the basics.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Wenbo Fan

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.