Sleet or snow, MSU farm managers care for campus animals
MSU is home to nearly 6,000 animals housed across six farms – spanning 630 acres, with an additional 600 acres dedicated to growing feed – all located within 3 miles of central campus.
While many university employees enjoy time off during the holidays, campus farm workers are still on the clock. Farm managers and their staff are on-site seven days a week to ensure animals are fed, watered and cared for.
For Lacey Quail, farm manager for the Sheep Teaching and Research Center, the end of October to mid-December is a quiet time spent preparing the farm for winter temperatures.
“Working on the farm goes beyond just caring for the animals,” Quail said. “We also have to maintain the property and facilities to keep the animals healthy and safe. This can mean replacing an old gate or fence, pouring concrete or maintaining water lines.”
Although the farm’s 250 mature sheep (and lambs depending on the time of year) are kept indoors for the winter, only half of the barn is heated. Keeping the animals’ water from freezing is one of the biggest challenges, according to Quail.
“Sheep don’t notice the weather change all that much,” she added. “They may flock up more when it’s cold, but as long as their wool is dry, it’s easy for them to keep warm.”
There’s also a risk of January lambs getting hypothermia, but it’s rare. Despite cold temperatures, new lambs are hardy and have a high chance of survival if they nurse right away.
The biggest reward for Quail is watching the student employees grow and learn.
“It’s really bittersweet when you realize the students you’ve trained no longer need your help,” Quail said. “They’re getting a real hands-on learning experience that they’d never get in the classroom – it’s a great feeling to be a part of that.”
Quail is a fourth-generation sheep producer from South Dakota. She received her bachelor’s degree in animal science at South Dakota State and her master’s degree from Texas A&M. She joined MSU in 2018 and is returning to South Dakota in 2020 to pursue her Ph.D.
The MSU Sheep Teaching and Research Center, located at 3885 Hagadorn Road in Okemos, is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours are available upon request. Learn more at go.msu.edu/V3P.
Balancing teaching, research activities and daily farm operations are the biggest challenges for Tristan Foster, who manages the Beef Teaching and Research Center.
“We have so many different classes come through the farm that some days I’m teaching for eight hours straight,” Foster said. “We have a great crew who I can trust to take care of up to 900 animals and keep things running.”
The beef farm consists of three operations: a feedlot facility, a cow/calf facility and the Veterinarian Research Farm. All three are used to run different research projects with multiple large animal species, making management more difficult and costly at times.
“When you have many small groups of cattle on different regimens, it increases the amount of time it takes to feed and care for those animals,” he explained. “While a commercial farm may have 12 watering drinkers to monitor, we could have 100.”
On pasture year-round, MSU beef cattle begin to grow a thick winter coat when temperatures start to drop. Foster keeps a close watch on weather predictions and will make the call to move animals to a different pasture — one with a natural shelter — if a bad winter storm is predicted to hit campus.
“We want animals to spend as little time indoors as possible, as its better for their quality of life,” Foster said. “We roll bales of hay on the ground so they don’t have to lay down in the snow, but cattle are tough. They don’t mind the cold much.”
However, pregnant females are moved indoors to a barn with outdoor access when the animal gets close to her due date. New mothers and calves are kept indoors and closely monitored for a 24-hour period post-calving, especially when subzero temperatures hit.
Teaching is the most rewarding part of the job for Foster.
“The student body is vastly different today than it was 50 years ago,” he added. “We have a lot of students come through that don’t have any prior livestock experience but want to be challenged and learn new things. Having these facilities so close to campus is a wonderful resource for teaching, research and outreach with the public.”
A Wisconsin native, Foster received his bachelor’s degree in food industry management from MSU before pursuing a beef management technology certification while also working on the beef farm for class credit. In 2014, he became the beef farm manager and received his master’s degree in animal science in 2016.
The Beef Teaching and Research Center, located at 5307 Bennett Road in Lansing, is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Guided tours are available upon request. Learn more at go.msu.edu/5KP.