From Wrangling Lamb-Stealing Sheep to Collecting Stomach Fluid From Cows, Staff and Students Carry On UMD’s Agricultural Tradition
Photos by John T. Consoli
There was a time when students didn’t outnumber livestock in College Park by much, back around 1900 when the landscape was largely farmland, dotted with just a few buildings. Today, a smaller Campus Farm, nestled between the Cambridge Community, the Physical Sciences Complex and the Xfinity Center, remains a tangible connection to the university’s origins as the Maryland Agricultural College.
Home to sheep, cows and horses year-round, as well as chickens, pigs and other livestock that cycle in and out throughout the academic year, the 4.5-acre farm is where students learn to groom and halter horses or assist with births during each spring’s “Lamb Watch” class.
These hands-on opportunities are possible due to dedicated staff, student workers and volunteers, who show up rain or shine, 365 days a year. Farm Manager Megan McLean and farm crew member Lilly Rainey ’22, an animal science major, share how they manage daily care for the animals, why crayons are surprisingly important to their work and how having cows with holes in their sides can save lives.
McLean: Our main purpose is to serve animal science students. For example, we have two big classes in the fall, ANSC103, with around 100 students total. They’re here most weeks. We help teach them basic animal identification and handling: How do you catch and hold a sheep? How do you lead and halter a horse?
We usually have five or six horses, two cows and 25 sheep (lambs add more). Then we’ll bring in pigs, beef or dairy cattle, or chickens for a week or two, depending on what the classes need.
We hire seven students for farm crew, then have another 10 volunteers. Many are animal science majors, but anyone can apply. We also have three staff members: myself, an assistant farm manager and an ag technician who is part-time. In the application, we let people know that you have to be available for some holidays. It doesn’t matter what the weather is or what the holiday is—the animals still need care. That’s the reality of animal science.
Rainey: Feed shifts are the best because you can work hands-on with the animals. The Maryland Equestrian Club starts at 7 a.m. for horse care, and then the farm crew gets here around 8 to care for the sheep and cows. We make sure they have clean, fresh water, re-bed the pens and feed them hay, and make sure everyone is healthy. For the mid shift, around 10 a.m. to noon, we do farm maintenance like fixing fences or broken equipment, weed-whacking, spreading fertilizer—it’s something different every day. Then at 5 p.m., we do another feed shift.
Outside of the day-to-day work, one big thing each year is getting ready for lambing. In the fall, rams wear harnesses with a crayon to mark the backs of the ewes they’ve mated with. We have to monitor how much the crayon is worn down during the mating process and replace it, and change out the color throughout the season so we can keep track of when the ewes are bred.
McLean: After Thanksgiving, we look for signs of pregnancy. The students catch the sheep, then bring them over to me and restrain them while I do the ultrasound.
They give birth from early February to mid-March. Once they’re close to the due date, we put the ewes in an isolation pen so it’s easier for the students in the “Lamb Watch” class to catch them if the sheep need help. It’s also good to separate them because first-time moms tend to steal lambs. If their hormones are raging and they haven’t given birth yet, they’ll go after a lamb and think it’s theirs. Then it’s a problem when she actually gives birth. We have to make sure each mom’s lambs, since they usually have twins, are only nursing from her.
Rainey: If we have any lambs that need to be bottle-fed, we feed them! It’s really fun.
McLean: Usually the ewes can do it on their own, but we help if needed. Students dip the lambs’ navels and hooves in iodine solution to help them dry out and keep them sterile. They also help put on ear tags for identification, since these animals are bred to be as uniform as possible.
Rainey: Ag Day (part of Maryland Day) is another big event in the spring. Students sign up to show animals. You practice walking them in a circle, you wash them and blow-dry them, and the judges pick a winner. I showed a lamb last year, which was a lot more challenging than I thought! It was hard just to get her to walk in a straight line. They’re very rebellious.
McLean: Another fun thing on Ag Day is giving people a chance to put their hand in our fistulated cows. These two cows go through a small surgery to put a hole in their sides, so we can access their rumen, the first compartment of their four-chambered stomach. There’s a port put in so it can be closed up, and we clean that regularly.
You can use the port for research, collecting fluid and gases to see how they’re digesting. Sometimes we use it to help out other ruminants (grazing herbivores that have multi-chambered stomachs). We had a sheep who was sick and wasn’t eating. We were concerned the microbes in her rumen would die, so I took rumen fluids from one of the cows and repopulated her gut.
You don’t have to wait until Ag Day to come see our animals. The Campus Farm is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If the gates are open, come in and walk around, and feel free to ask questions. And see if you can spot our farm cat, Bean! Some of our students like to come pet her for good luck before their exams.
This is part of a monthly series that looks behind the scenes at “what it takes” to keep the University of Maryland humming and create a vibrant campus experience. Got an idea for a future installment? Email email@example.com.
Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.
Faculty, staff and students receive the daily Maryland Today e-newsletter. To be added to the subscription list, sign up here:Subscribe