Have you ever heard of a college lambing team or lambing club? Neither had we…until we heard from students at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts who recently established the Becker College Lambing Team, believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States. In addition to gaining valuable hands-on learning, the students are also helping to save a local environmentally conscious farm in the process.
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April is when spring lambs are born in New England, and Becker College’s lambing team has their hands full of lambs—delivered by the team’s 30 members, all animal science students at Becker. The college’s lambing team got its initial start during last year’s spring lambing season, when Samantha Gooch, Laura Renner, and a few other Becker students volunteered to help deliver spring lambs with the owners of nearby struggling Signal Rock Farm. Not only does this week mark the start of lambing season but it’s also the launch of the group’s first hands-on work as an official Becker College club.
The sheep and lambs at Signal Rock in Charlton, Massachusetts are largely raised for wool, milk for cultured dairy products, and meat. The Becker students and their faculty advisors explain that they have deep respect for the humane treatment of animals on the farm, “which is committed to using only the best available sustainable management practices for sheep,” according to its owners. Becker College officials note that while lambing clubs exist at a few colleges and universities in the United Kingdom and New Zealand (mostly with animal studies or veterinary programs), such teams or clubs are likely nonexistent in the United States. “There are certainly universities with veterinary programs where some of the graduate students step in to help deliver lambs,” says Dr. Margaret Delano, associate professor of veterinary science and the lambing team’s faculty advisor. “But we know of no other American college or university with a student lambing club like this.”
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“I initially began as a hired lambing assistant in 2013,” Samantha Gooch, a junior from Pittsfield, Massachusetts and the club’s president, explains. “The lambs are born during all times of the day and night, so it was clear that Marianne McCarthy, the owner of Signal Rock Farm, needed more help.” Samantha, who is a veterinary science major with a pre-veterinary concentration, recruited her roommate Laura Renner and several of their friends and classmates from Becker’s School of Animal Studies—and they enjoyed the experience so much that during a late-night shift, they decided to touch base with their professors about forming a club.
Laura Renner, a junior from Sudbury, Massachusetts and the club’s secretary, says the club was approved as a team by Becker College’s student government association during the Fall 2013 semester. “Our initial meeting as a club was in October and we had about 60 people show up for the meeting and about 30 of them followed through and joined our team.” Samantha Gooch notes that although it is officially designated as a club, the members refer to the group as a “team,” given the amount of physical activity and intense group participation involved.
“Our students sign up for regular weekly shifts at the farm which can be anywhere from three hours long to a twelve-hour overnight shift,” she says. “We help make sure all the sheep have plenty of hay and water, give injections when necessary, bottle feed any orphan lambs, monitor the health of the ewes and the lambs, and assist with any deliveries and the care of the lambs and ewes afterwards.”
“The purpose of our team is to provide students with valuable large animal experience while also helping to keep a local farm on its feet by providing free assistance,” says Gooch. All members sit through several on-campus lectures, meet with animal science faculty and take an exam to become a part of a smaller group of about ten students within the club. “This smaller group is called the hands-on group,” she says. “They are the ones that will learn how to perform injections on the sheep, pass stomach tubes in lambs, and assist in the delivery process.” All other students still go to the farm, but will assist the hands-on group and help out with less technical tasks such as bottle-feeding lambs and offering help with farm work that supports the lambing process.
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“What I like best about the team is that it does a fantastic job of pulling together a group of dedicated students who all care about and want to learn about the same thing. Everyone is looking to further themselves and their careers by taking on this opportunity and we are all incredibly grateful for Marianne [McCarthy] to even allow us to have such an opportunity.”
Professor Delano says all 30 students in the club are animal science, veterinary science, or equine majors. “The lambing club provides them with an added hands-on dimension to their course work, and this is both beneficial to the farm and to our students,” she says. “And the owners of Signal Rock Farm are recognized for their very deep emphasis on humane treatment of their animals and providing a great example from which students can learn.”
Dr. Richard French, professor and dean of animal studies at Becker, says students started taking digital photos of their work delivering lambs in mid-April, when their efforts were truly in full swing.
Last spring, Marianne McCarthy says she had about 80 ewes that produced lambs at Signal Rock Farm, and most ewes had twins but there were also many singles and many triplets. This year she has about 70 ewes expected to lamb, and students from the lambing club will continue to help her in the months ahead.
Laura Renner says she gained new insights from her first overnight of the season. “What I’m learning so far is that everything they do on the farm is centered on the health and welfare of the sheep, so I’m already learning a lot about best practices.”