The UMass Amherst community just got a little bigger. Last month, 32 lambs and five kids were born at the UMass Farm. “It was a lot of work,” says assistant farm superintendent and shepherd, Alice Newth, “but the animals were doing most of it.”
Every year Newth breeds the UMass sheep and goats, but this year was a little different. In part because of COVID, Newth decided to condense the birthing season into one “birthing bonanza,” when all 23 animals (including pregnant ewes and does, or female goats) gave birth to 32 lambs and five kids in a six-day window, from Feb. 12 through 18. It was a round-the-clock effort for Newth and the students and TAs in the Dorset Sheep Management, Boer Goat Management, and Introduction to Animal Management courses offered by Veterinary and Animal Science (VASCI), all of which give students a way to gain experience with the livestock.
What is it like to be on lambing duty? “They like to catch us off guard,” says Cassie Whitelaw, a senior VASCI major, who helped deliver eleven lambs this season. The on-duty students often spend the night in the barn to assist the ewes as they give birth, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to five hours, and which can involve everything from moving the newly born lamb to lie at its mother’s head, to rolling up one’s sleeves and lending a hand. “The first one I delivered this year had its front legs back” said Seana Mawhinney, also a senior VASCI major. Since lambs are supposed to be born Superman-style, with their heads just above their front legs, Mawhinney had to “reach in there and fix that.”
The Dorset sheep that UMass breeds are registered Polled Dorsets, a dual-purpose breed that yields both meat and wool—up to 200 pounds of the latter. It’s this high-quality wool that goes into EweMass blankets. Available every winter, the proceeds from blanket sales go back to the farm.
Unfortunately, due to COVID the research and education farm is closed to all visitors, but in a few weeks, the lambs will be out in the fields.
And what about the lasting experience of helping birth the lambs? Kate Loonie, a senior VASCI student, has helped with four seasons of lambing. “Maybe I’ll have a small herd for myself when I am older, where I can put all of this experience to good use,” she says.