OLD TOWN, Maine — A hushed sort of reverence fell over the barn at Witter Farm on the University of Maine Orono campus Friday. Two students leaned over Hawaii’s Girl, an off-white-colored Icelandic sheep silently laboring in a corner stall. Within minutes, a tiny, still-wet, just-birthed black lamb was being dried off and trying to take its first wobbly steps.
The students and sheep are part of the University’s School of Food and Agriculture. This is the first time the school has had sheep in several years after the previous flock was sold to save money. Thanks to a $200,000 United States Department of Agriculture grant, those costs, as well as a research project being done by Veterinary Services professor Jim Weber, are now fully funded.
“There’s no better way to learn obstetrics, baby care, the whole thing … we’ll have 20 sheep when we’re all done. That’s a great chance for the students to get immersed and gain a lot of confidence,” Weber said.
Jaime Boulos, a freshman who stopped by the barn Friday to check in on the sheep, echoed Weber’s sentiments, saying the firsthand experience offered at Witter Farm was what drew her to UMO’s pre-veterinary program.
“That’s how you learn — by getting in there and doing it,” she said.
The three-year grant will allow the university’s animal and veterinary sciences department to study the barber pole worm, a common parasite found in many sheep and goats. Typically a parasite found in the south, the barber pole worm has slowly adapted to Maine winters and now threatens Maine’s 30,000 or so sheep and goats.
Twelve Icelandic sheep donated to the farm last fall already had the parasite in them, giving Weber and his students a chance to study the worms and search for solutions to keep them from spreading.
“We’re looking at the biology of the worm and figuring out what’s the best time of year to attack this thing,” Weber said.
Ultimately, he would like to give farmers a solution to killing the parasite before it matures and puts the sheep at risk of anemia and ultimately death.
“I feel that treating sick animals in the summer is a bad approach. They’re already sick, losing weight and susceptible to other problems. My thought is to catch this before it gets to the point where the animal gets sick,” Weber said.
In the coming months and years, Weber and his team with take the information they discover and test it on commercial farms in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. While there, they also plan to teach farmers about conventional diagnostic and treatment tools for sheep and goats.
To participate in the project or for more information, call 581-2774 or email email@example.com. The J. Franklin Witter Teaching and Research Center in Old Town is open to the public Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.