UD students get hands-on farm experience in beef and sheep capstone course

UD students get hands-on farm experience in beef and sheep capstone courseTwenty-seven University of Delaware students in the beef cattle and sheep production capstone course got hands-on experience this semester on the Webb Farm, learning everything from sheep shearing to pasture rotation as they acquired valuable tools to carry with them in their future agricultural careers.

The course is led by Lesa Griffiths, the T.A. Baker Professor in the University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), who said that capstone courses like these are integral in preparing students for veterinary school and other animal agriculture pursuits.

She also said that because Webb Farm operates like a small scale farming operation on campus, students get real world experience before they graduate.

“We don’t do anything different than a regular sheep or cattle producer would do other than that, in this case, we have 27 students helping and watching over the animals daily. But the lambs and cattle are produced just like any farmer would produce them,” said Griffiths.

Lamb watch

This year, around 50 to 55 lambs, were born during the course and Griffiths explained that the sheep are assigned to certain groups of students to care for throughout the semester.

“Any lambs that are born on their watch, they are responsible for their care for the rest of the semester,” said Griffiths. “They ear tag them, they dock their tails, they give them their vaccinations and monitor their growth rate and their health. For those lambs that are born when nobody is watching, we assign them to students.”

Since the students have already taken courses in animal nutrition, animal physiology and animal genetics, among many others, they take everything they’ve learned in the classroom out on the farm during the month that the ewes give birth, working early mornings and evenings with the hope that they get to witness a live birth.

Caitlin Jozwiak, a senior in CANR, said that when the groups made their rotations, they would “make sure that it’s a steady birthing process and if it’s not then, we have the opportunity to go in and assist.”

Under the watchful eye of the farm manager, an instructor and, if needed, a veterinarian, students have the opportunity to help ewes when things are not proceeding normally.

Griffiths said that experiencing a live birth for the first time is an eye-opening experience for the students.

“You can read about it all you want but until you actually watch an animal going through labor and develop the patience to just watch and observe — as well as the skill to know when something is going wrong and at what point you intervene by contacting a veterinarian and what information you would give to the veterinarian. All of that is really hard to put into a textbook,” Griffiths said.

Sheep shearing

In addition to observing the birthing process of the lambs, the class also had a chance to learn how to shear the sheep, with the wool used to make UD’s Blue Hen Blankets and Yarn.

Jozwiak said that shearing the sheep was a great experience but that it was also hard work.

“It’s very methodical to make sure that you cover the entire animal and it’s not in any direction that will hurt them. It was awesome, but I was also sore the next day from holding them up at all sorts of angles,” said Jozwiak.

The class was shown the proper shearing technique by Larry Armstrong, manager of the Webb Farm, and Scott Hopkins, UD farm superintendent.

Jake Morris, who recently graduated from CANR, said he agreed with Jozwiak that it was fun but hard work.

“It hurts. It’s a backbreaking kind of thing but once you do it like Larry does multiple times a day, on multiple sheep for years and years, you get used to it. The first time you do it, it probably is the hardest to get used to,” said Morris.

Sarah Morrissey, who also recently graduated from CANR, said that the hardest part of shearing the sheep was getting the courage to begin.

“We learned how to press down at the correct angle pretty easily, but everyone was hesitant at the beginning,” said Morrissey, who thought that the process was a little bit easier than what she had expected. “I think we all became nervous once we saw the giant clippers, but the demonstration beforehand was helpful when it came to approaching the task with the proper technique. And since we took turns, no one had to shear an entire sheep, which can become exhausting.”

Griffiths said that learning the proper technique to shear a sheep is integral because not only is the safety of the animal of the upmost importance, but the wool that is being taken is a product that needs to be kept intact.

“You can’t just clip it off because its quality is related to your skill in removing it. In particular, the length of the wool is important and if somebody doesn’t have the correct skill and just did swoops or short swipes or multiple swipes to get to the one quarter inch left on the ewe, you’re destroying the value of the wool itself. So while you have to be very careful about how you handle and care for the animal, you’re actually removing a marketable product and so you have to be very careful with the product also,” she said.

Pasture rotations

The class also learned about the importance of pasture rotations — moving livestock to different parts of a pasture to allow for its recovery and growth after grazing — something Jozwiak said was great to see firsthand.

“The biggest thing for me to grasp in lecture is this idea of pasture rotations, so when we actually got to go out and corral the animals into a different pasture and you see how far they graze it down and how dead that area gets, and then you move them to this huge grassy area, you see it happening and you see why they do that. Before I thought, ‘It’s grass, it’ll grow right back.’ That was pretty eye opening,” said Jozwiak.

Griffiths said that it’s a goal of hers to show students that beef and sheep production is intimately tied to pasture production.

“The students have to understand something about the biology of the plants that the animals eat and how we carefully match the biology of the animals to the biology of those plants for optimum nutrition,” said Griffiths.

Understanding animals

Because the beef cattle calved a bit later in the semester, there was a greater emphasis on the sheep this year and, based on the timing of lambing, the class was able to fit in more sheep labs and emphasize small scale sheep production.

Still, Griffiths said that the skills the students learned with the sheep are transferable to other animals and other aspects of animal agriculture.

“I think the ability to observe the animals and to understand animal behavior, while it is specific to some species, those skills about watching and observing and understanding when something is not quite right I think are transferable,” said Griffiths. “The patience to sit through labor and have the patience to stand back despite wanting to help and understand when it actually is time to intervene is important. Otherwise you should never intervene which goes against a lot of our interest in getting in there and assisting and helping and trying to make it easier for the animals.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Wenbo Fan

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