(Agricultural Communication photos/Tom Campbell)
By Natalie van Hoose
If you’ve been living in Indiana these last six months, chances are you’re winter-warped.
Your resistance to the historic cold probably cracked around late January, and eventually, it just seemed normal to pick your way around dunes of snow and endure winds so frigid you could swear your organs are huddled together for warmth.
Shake off those ice pellets, friends. Out at Purdue University’s sheep research unit, there are manifest signs of springtime.
The sheep are freshly shorn, the barn door stands open to the sunshine, and best of all, a bumper crop of week-old Suffolk lambs frolics in the straw. There’s no mistaking lambing season: It’s a period that runs from the end of January to early March—six weeks during which more than 100 ewes will blat, bellow and heave their way into motherhood.
Most ewes can lamb unaided, but about 10 percent need a hand. For those difficult births, the sheep unit staff and dedicated night-lambers — students who assist between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. — are ready and trained to help. This year, student volunteers arrived at the barns even when the university was snowed under.
They detangled limbs in utero, blocked baby-snatching ewes, treated naval cords and made sure newborns got a bellyful of colostrum—the ewe’s first milk, which is rich in nutrients and disease-preventing immunoglobins.
Overseeing this hectic time of bursting water bags and dazed babies is Gerald Kelly, an alumnus of Purdue’s animal sciences program and manager of the sheep unit since 1984. Kelly estimates that 9,000 lambs have been born on his watch during the last 30 years. At peak times, he often works 16 to 18 hours at a stretch, but he’s stoic about the long days.
“Lambing season is always fun,” Kelly says. “Lambs have that cute factor going for them. When they grow up, they start to act more like sheep.”
The cuteness is impossible to overlook. Black- and speckled-faced lambs trot around the pens in nubby little packs, nuzzling each other and launching straight up into the air as though they’ve taken an electric shock to the hooves. Their verticals are impressive.
The ewes look on, placidly chewing hay. But when the weather grows warm enough for Kelly to turn them out to pasture, they toss their dignity to the wind. He always looks forward to the moment when the sheep set hoof to grass for the first time since fall.
“The ewes bounce and kick out their heels just like the lambs,” he says. “Even the big ones.”