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Yes, you can take a college course on raising lambs


Many high school seniors are figuring out their college plans. NPR's Claire Murashima looked into some of higher education's quirkier offerings. She found one on a campus farm at the University of Maryland.

CLAIRE MURASHIMA, BYLINE: Sheep Management is a popular course at UMD, and there's usually a waitlist. When the spring-only course starts, students pair up to care for one of 20 pregnant sheep.

CAITLYN MERCADO: Lamb watch was the reason I came to this university.

MURASHIMA: That's teaching assistant Caitlyn Mercado. Sarah Balcom, who taught the class for 12 years, says that sheep usually give birth at night. And that can be inconvenient.

SARAH BALCOM: You're on call. You have your phone with you at all hours of the night.

MURASHIMA: Before sheep go into labor, they stop eating their grain. They isolate themselves, and their bodies get ready for delivery.


MURASHIMA: Students try their best to make it to the farm in time.

BALCOM: They have told me stories of waking up in the middle of the night and driving 45 minutes and trying hard not to speed because you're never quite sure if the cop's going to believe you that you're going to the birth of your lamb.

MURASHIMA: Their first job is just to stand by. If all is going well, they don't intervene. Once the lambs are born, students run through a list of health checks. Caitlyn Mercado remembers cleaning stalls, trimming hooves, taking temperatures. And something else she learned - lambs aren't white and fluffy.

MERCADO: I was expecting them to be really soft. But they're really, like, oily and, like, greasy. And I was not expecting my hand to come back, like, brown from the, like, grease.

MURASHIMA: That grease - lanolin, a wax they produce naturally. It's also used by humans to treat blisters and dry skin.

BALCOM: Going to cut it off with my sponge.

MURASHIMA: The syllabus calls for a specific uniform - boots that can withstand an acid wash and coveralls that students keep at the farmhouse. That's to prevent the spread of disease.

MERCADO: You were not allowed to wash them with your normal clothes, mainly so that if you did get something like afterbirth or poop or pee - which is very common - you weren't contaminating your other clothes.

MURASHIMA: I can see the water steaming.

CLAIRE JENNINGS: Yes. We like it hot.

MURASHIMA: Claire Jennings took Sheep Management in 2022.

JENNINGS: I have, like, ADD. And on top of that, I have, like, anxiety and depression.

MURASHIMA: She says regular classroom settings, they've never really worked for her.

JENNINGS: I'd have to take really intensive, ridiculously intricate notes and do, like, a lot of highlighting. And at the end of the class, I don't feel like I've learned anything. I actually feel like - I kind of feel dumber going out than coming in.

MURASHIMA: But managing a flock of sheep, it's super hands-on, which is how she learns best. Now she's a TA.

JENNINGS: I like the empowerment feeling I get after the hands-on lessons where I'm like, I could totally go and do this by myself now. No problem.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You got all the babies.

MURASHIMA: The lambs are born in pens, but when they're a few weeks old, they're moved to a big enclosure where they can socialize and be part of the flock.


BALCOM: They will have lamb races. They will start getting the zoomies.

MURASHIMA: And once they're grown, the males will often be sold for meat, and the females sold to other farms for breeding.

BALCOM: At some point, we have to kind of start distancing ourselves from them because we are going to sell them.

MURASHIMA: After all, this is a working farm.

BALCOM: And that can be really hard on students whose primary experiences have always been with pets.


MURASHIMA: Because, at the end of the day, this farm still needs to pay the bills. Claire Murashima, NPR News.


KELLY: And you can check out all the cute lamb pictures at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMB BLEATING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.