Students in the University of Delaware’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences 417 Capstone Course spent the beginning of the spring semester on the farm in the early morning hours of the day or into the early evening on “lamb watch,” keeping an eye out to see if any of the pregnant ewes in the UD flock were about to give birth.
Under the guidance of Lesa Griffiths, professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, and Larry Armstrong, farm manager, the students spent the month of March — which was peak time for lambing this year — watching over the 52 ewes, which produced 93 lambs. The figures were up from the 81 lambs from 42 ewes last year.
The 30-member class was divided into groups with four or five students per group and an honors student liaison, as the class is also an Honors Program capstone course. Each student had to sign up for six lamb watches during the lambing season in addition to their regular lab meetings once a week.
The earliest shift was from 6-7:30 a.m. and the latest was from 8-9:30 p.m. Each student had to write in a barn journal to provide an update on what they did and what they noticed for the next students scheduled to arrive at the farm, and Griffiths said that before spring break, there had been over 320 entries in the journal.
Griffiths said that if a lamb was born on a group’s watch, that group would take care of the lamb for the semester.
“They are responsible for making the decision as to when it’s appropriate to ear tag and dock their tails. They weigh and record birth weights, 10-day weights, 30-day weights, and they’ll administer their vaccines,” said Griffiths.
She added that this real world, hands-on experience is critical to the development of the students.
“They really learn because when it comes to animal care, there is a much greater responsibility in terms of making sure the task gets done and playing your role,” said Griffiths. “You really have a responsibility and a level of accountability to the other people in your group and to the animals. I think the students learn a lot of people skills, communication skills and time management skills, as they have to relay information accurately and quickly.”
Armstrong noted, “After lambing, the students take an integral part in the challenges that arise from raising one of the world’s oldest domestic animals. The labs have been structured, yet are organic and fun at the same time.”
He added that the students “have done an amazing job of learning management skills and protocols from Dr. Griffiths then helping me to apply their newly learned skills in very real world situations. They learn, teach each other and confidently perform tasks that will put them above and beyond others in their future careers.”
Casey Foreman, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said that lamb watch was mostly to make sure everything was proceeding as normal with the ewes and to notify Armstrong or Griffiths if one was having problems delivering.
“The ewes are usually able to give birth without any assistance. Once she has had the lamb, we can go in and clean off the lamb’s nose and mouth to make sure that it is able to breathe. Then we leave it alone so that the ewe can clean it off and begin to take care of it,” said Foreman.
Foreman, who has witnessed three births this lambing season, said her favorite part about the class is working with the animals. “We get to interact with the lambs, weighing them to keep track of their growth, giving them ear tags, and docking their tails. We also have to move the ewes, with their lambs, to different parts of the barn as the lambs get older. From the maternity bay with the pregnant sheep to a jug, an individualized pen where the mom can bond with her baby, and then to a mixing pen where groups of ewes and their babies are brought together again.”
During one particularly difficult lambing session this year, they had to call the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for assistance, and it just so happened that the center sent a familiar face — Kaitlyn Lutz, a UD alumna who graduated in 2007 with a degree in animal science and pre-veterinary medicine and is a second-year resident at New Bolton.
“To walk in and see her there was really nice,” Griffiths said, “not only because she’s an alum but because she’s interested in small ruminants and it’s not always easy to find a veterinarian with expertise in sheep.”
Lutz said that she currently trains veterinary students on all livestock species — sheep, goats and dairy and beef cows — and because UD is a client, she explained, “The involvement I have here is all on the veterinary side and we come down once a week to take care of any lambing issues and any sick animals. And if there are students here, they get to become involved.”
Lutz said it is great to come back to UD and see the facilities and interact with the people. “It’s really nice to have that involvement and then to also know that when I come back, I can be so proud of what the University of Delaware has to offer,” said Lutz. “All of the facilities are great, the people here are great, and it’s nice to bring vet students here to teach them using such a great facility with good management and have that interaction now that I’ve learned more — and am still learning from the people here.”
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Danielle Quigley