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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Students Watch Over Baby Animals Born at New Mexico State University

LAS CRUCES -- In the chilly darkness just before sunrise, a sleepy-eyed Josh Adams reported for his shift on ewe patrol at New Mexico State University's animal farm. He buttoned his canvas jacket and walked down the dirt lane to the sheep barn. Soon another student arrived, checked her flashlight and moved through corral gates toward the heifer pens. At this ebony hour the only sounds on the west side of campus were the clanging of the gates and the drone of trucks on the interstate.

In both the sheep and beef production classes, student teams are drawn at the beginning of the semester. Until all the babies are delivered, team members take turns on round-the-clock surveillance of more than 100 pregnant sheep and goats and more than 20 heifers.

Some faculty members find it difficult to relate textbook teachings to the real world. But in NMSU's animal science department, professors combine classroom instruction with life and death experience. Animal science classes 414 and 416 call for a degree of responsibility not often found in a college setting: Make a mistake, and your project dies.

"Being there for a live birth is better than the classroom," professor Tim Ross had told his sheep production class. "Students do a good job when on duty. They're conscientious and observant and it makes a difference to overall productivity to have 600 eyes instead of six watching the flock."

Adams moved around the outside pens, the white vapor of his breath rising and mingling with that of the sheep and dissipating in the frosty night. He looked for signs of labor, a ewe pawing at the ground, neck arched, straining to deliver a lamb. Most animals give birth unassisted, but a helping hand is critical when an animal is in trouble.

Students have to make their judgments in the dusty shadows of corrals or the gloom of the barn, by the blurry beam of a flashlight, their thoughts interrupted by the bleats or bellows of distressed animals. Has the mother been in labor too long? Is the baby positioned correctly?

Students must be able to identify the difference between a normal birth and one that is abnormally messy, signaling complications. They have to decide whether to wait, help with the delivery or make a call for help.

"The most difficult birth is for a heifer having her first calf at 24 months of age," Neil Burcham, beef production professor, had told his class. "You'll get to see calves born naturally, and you'll probably get to see one helped. You've got to know what to look for."

In a normal birth, whether it's cattle, sheep, goats or horses, the two front hooves emerge first, followed by the nose and, after a lot of straining, the rest of the animal. But sometimes the head or back legs come out before the front feet. If so, a student may need to assist the mother by pulling on the baby. That means catching panicky ewes or moving obstinate heifers to the pulling chute.

Inside the barn, one of the ewes had scraped a bed for herself in a dark corner and laid down. Twenty minutes of straining and bleating had not produced a lamb. It was decision time for Josh Adams.

Adams remembered Dr. Ross holding up a battered metal toolbox in class. "I call this Pandora's Box because, if you need to open it, it usually means trouble," Ross said. He ticked off the contents: shoulder-length disposable gloves for pulling lambs, betadine scrub, iodine for the umbilical cord, needles and syringes, an antibiotic, a styrofoam coffee cup in case the ewe needed to be milked, and stopper bottle and rubber tube to get the milk into the lamb's stomach.

Adams decided to pull the lamb. Dennis Hallford, a bearded animal science professor was headed for his office when Adams summoned him into the sheep barn and explained the situation. "OK, Josh, glove up," Hallford said. Adams entered the musty storeroom and opened Pandora's Box.

With Hallford holding the ewe by the head, Adams reached inside, probing for the lamb's feet. Working by touch made it hard to distinguish the various shapes, but he found each leg and extended them, one at a time, as far as the knee. Holding the wet legs with his ungloved hand, Adams reached back in to position the head, nose first, inside the ewe. Then he began to pull. As he did, the head cleared the pelvis. Another strong tug and the glistening body plopped into the dust of the sheep barn. Hallford released the ewe's head, and the new mother turned and began to lick her baby.

Even when the newborn is on the ground, students have to stay alert. Colostrum, the first milk in the udder, is higher in protein, vitamins and minerals than regular milk and supplies antibodies needed by the baby. If the baby is too weak to drink or the mother too nervous to stand still, the student must milk the ewe or heifer and tube feed the baby.

Adams watched as lamb number 6036 struggled to its feet. While its mother licked the last shreds of lacenta from its drying wool, the newborn creature staggered to the ewe's udder and began nursing. Adams was relieved.

"I didn't know how it would work out at first," he said. "But now that it's born, I feel like she's part mine." Adams, who grew up on a ranch and would like to manage a feed yard when he graduates, had never seen a lamb born before.

At seven o'clock the sun appeared from behind the Organ mountains. On the east side of campus, some students rolled over for another hour of snoozing. On the west side of campus, as the first keen light of morning struck the sheep barn, Adams thought about where to find a cup of coffee.