Spring has arrived at the University of Maine’s J. Franklin Witter Teaching and Research Center where lambing season has begun.
About 20 students in the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Program are providing prenatal, delivery and post-delivery care for the flock of registered Icelandic ewes at the Orono farm. Since the season began in early April, the students have overseen five sets of births. Five more births are expected in the next few weeks.
James Weber, associate professor in the School of Food and Agriculture and the university’s attending veterinarian, is coordinating the student participation. He says the students are responsible for 100 percent of the animal care and are heavily invested.
“A student who was assigned to lambing watch texted me one night to say she thought the ewe was going to give birth,” Weber says. “By the time I arrived at the farm, there were 15 other students there. And this was at 9 p.m.”
The experience provides an educational, hands-on opportunity for the students, especially the seven who plan to attend veterinary school next year, Weber says.
Witter farm currently is home to 10 ewes, two rams and 11 lambs, as well as cows and horses. The sheep have recently returned to campus after the farm’s herd was sold six years ago because of financial constraints, Weber says.
Weber’s $200,000 USDA grant for research on a deadly sheep and goat parasite helped bring the lambs back to the farm. The three-year Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) study aims to develop and implement a winter management protocol for Haemonchus contortus, or barber pole worm, in northern New England.
During the region’s cold winters, the parasite is confined to the animals’ digestive tract. In the spring, overwintering larvae mature to adults that contaminate pastures and can sicken or kill pastured animals. The researchers hope to reduce the effect of the pests on grazing sheep through winter treatments, or by delaying return to pasture until the first generation of adult worms die within the host.
Weber and his team will take the data they find at Witter and test it on commercial farms in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. They also plan to teach the protocol, as well as conventional diagnostic and treatment tools, to commercial sheep and goat farmers throughout the region.
In addition to contributing to research and veterinary care education, the sheep have provided an opportunity for students to market and sell wool to local spinners, Weber says. The students also may market some of the lambs that aren’t needed for the study.
The farm is frequently visited by locals, as well as children on field trips, who enjoy seeing and learning about the animals. Witter Farm is open daily to visitors.
Photos and more information is on the students’ Ewe Maine Icelandics Club Facebook page.