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Grant Gives 4-H Members Hands-On Role in Raising Sheep

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES - Renee Greenwald runs the electric clippers across the black lamb's flank in a final shearing just before show time at the Sierra County Fair.



Winston Leggins 4-H Club member Renee Greenwald gives her lamb a final touch-up before competing at the Sierra County Fair. Greenwald said the Experimental Breeding Ewes Program taught her a lot about responsibility. The program was funded by a grant from the New Mexico Sheep and Goat Council. (11/24/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

The clippers' hum is almost lost in the hubbub in the metal building full of animals 4-H and FFA members have raised. The meat goat show is going at full clip in the nearby show ring, and freshly washed and brushed four-legged competitors strain at their leads, anxious for a walk.

Greenwald, a ninth-grader at Hot Springs High School and a member of the Winston Leggins 4-H Club, works with a practiced hand. It is clear that she knows the black lamb, which squirms only occasionally as the blades buzz along.

Unlike some "black sheep," this lamb is no outcast. It belongs to a growing family of sheep in a special breeding sheep program that allows 4-Hers to take more complete, year-round responsibilities. Traditionally, 4-H and FFA exhibitors buy their market lambs in the spring and care for them until fair time in the fall. This program broadens that experience.

Made possible by a grant from the New Mexico Sheep and Goat Council, the Experimental Breeding Ewes Program provided $900 in 2002 to get the project started, says Sierra County agent Albert J. Lyon with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. Six ewes were purchased. Each fall, the ewes are assigned to a 4-H member, then bred. Ewes produced seven lambs in 2003 and 11 lambs this year.

"Participants get the full picture of what it takes to raise a lamb," Lyon says. That means proper care of the pregnant ewe, the lamb's birth, vaccinations and tail-docking. "They get those extra experiences," he says. "They have to keep the baby lambs warm. They have to wean them and listen to them bawl and cry."

In exchange for the care of the loaned ewe, participants get to keep the lambs. Some, like Greenwald, will continue in the program with their new stock after returning the ewes to Lyon.

When Greenwald's ewe gave birth to three lambs last St. Patrick's Day, she eagerly took on her new obligations.

"It teaches you responsibility, and to care for new things, and how to care for new, tiny beings," Greenwald says as she leads her black lamb to its pen in the fairgrounds building.

"They're so cute, you want to play with them," she says. But raising newborn lambs is best left to the ewe, which did a great job, Greenwald says.

"She raised them all. She weaned them all. She gave me no trouble," she says.

As soon as the young lambs were ready, it was Greenwald's turn to get more involved. Lambs must learn to walk on a lead and they must be trained to stand still while in the ring so the judge can get a good look. Greenwald learned how to feed, wash and shear her sheep.

Her secrets? Patience in working with the sheep and not being afraid to ask for advice.

"You have to treat animals like a human, because they kind of are," Greenwald says as she closes the gate on the lamb's pen. "You have to work a lot with them, just so they're used to it."

A few pens away in the fairgrounds building, Hot Springs Mustangs 4-H member Debbie King rounds up her ewe and its twins. The Hot Springs High School freshman from Las Palomas says her first year in the breeding sheep program was a lot different than her four years showing goats.

Sheep are more time-consuming. King says she spends about two hours a day with hers. Her sheep project came with a few surprises, too.

"I never knew they had (long) tails," she says.

King also plans to continue in the program with her lambs.

Funding for the Sierra County project came from a voluntary check-off program that is supported by sheep and goat producers. The check-off program supports the sheep and goat industry in New Mexico.