Michigan State students skip holiday break to care for sheep
Meridian Township – While her classmates went home to celebrate the holidays over winter break, Michigan State University junior Rachel VonDoloski stayed behind to watch the flock.
After all, it’s breeding season at the MSU Sheep Teaching and Research Center, adding more work to the list of chores for VonDoloski and the students and farm staff whose work continues through the holiday season.
Staying behind doesn’t bother her, she said. She grew up in a military family and has grown used to spending holidays alone.
“I’m kind of used to not always being with my family,” Vondoloski told the Lansing State Journal. “It doesn’t bother me as much as it does other people who are used to big family parties.”
She was able to get away for a few days. Vondoloski was on her way to Wisconsin on recent Thursday where her father, a member of the U.S. Army, is stationed. That leaves Farm Manager Tristan Foster and one more person to care for 300 sheep, 400 cattle and 14 horses until students return from break.
That’s not including dairy and swine farms manned by more workers and managers. In total, MSU raises nearly 6,000 animals housed across six farms.
Caring for the animals doesn’t stop. While families were opening gifts or relaxing, there was at least one person working a six-hour shift to simply feed every sheep, cow and horse.
It’s an important time at the sheep farm – breeding season just started. The rams roam the flock of sheep huddled inside the barn, browsing the ewes for a breeding mate. Foster watches for any signs of injury or illness, which could sideline the rams for breeding season.
He likes this quiet time of year. When school is in session, he adds teaching and office work to his schedule. Now, he can get to work that he’s struggled to find time to do and get back to simple tasks on the farm.
“I use break to remember how to do chores again,” he joked.
VonDoloski started at the farm about a year ago. Last year, she worked through break and often volunteers to work holidays. It’s a time to work together and get projects that have been put off done, like replacing water lines and working on drinking systems for the sheep.
Freezing water tends to be the biggest challenge over break and throughout the winter. This winter’s warmer temperatures have kept that threat at bay so far.
VonDoloski’s work at the farm is never truly complete. She lives in an apartment at the farm. In exchange she agreed to work two weekends each month. She said it got her out of paying high rent prices in East Lansing and lets her work with animals.
But it means she’s always on call.
“If a sheep gets out, I’m the first one to be called,” VonDoloski said.
It’s not just feeding that keeps her busy. Workers at the farm also are responsible for vaccinating, hoofing, trimming, and deworming the sheep, and helping veterinarians when they visit.
When the sheep give birth in May, the students record information on the new lambs, tag their ears and add them to the system.
VonDoloski enjoys the work. Her family never stayed in one spot long enough to start a farm when she was growing up, but she grew to love raising farm animals when she stayed with her grandparents one summer and tended their cows, chickens and pigs. Her love for animals, sheep particularly, grew from there.
They’re much smarter than people think and she enjoys working with them, she said.
“Plus, they’re awful cute.”