College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Institute of Applied Agriculture

Baby Livestock and an IAA Student’s Burgeoning Career

Rob Ballenger

For 10 days leading up to Labor Day, labor was on the minds of many Maryland State fairgoers who crowded into the birthing center for an up-close look at the miracle of life. Institute of Applied Agriculture (IAA) student Becky Remsberg was there with a better-than-front-row seat; she was in the pen getting hands-on experience helping birth the calves, piglets and chicks that the crowds eagerly waited to see.  

Remsberg, who’s in her 2nd year at the IAA, says the birthing center is among the fair’s most popular attractions. “Some people tell us they’ve been coming to the state fair for five years just to see the birthing center,” according to Remsberg. Inside the large building, fairgoers of all ages crowded into bleachers that surrounded pens of expecting pigs and dairy cows. Labor is induced, but it can still take hours before a newborn finally emerges.  

If the evening arrived before some newborns did, spectators would patiently keep waiting right up until closing time (around 10 p.m.) as a sow remained in labor. Remsberg says that in past years, some people stayed as late as 2 a.m. to witness a birth.

When the time would come for an eagerly anticipated birth, Remsberg was among five students on the birthing center staff to help calves and piglets make their debut. Once a calf began to emerge from its mother’s womb, Remsberg and her colleagues performed midwife duties. After the first parts of a calf appeared – normally the front hooves – she and a colleague would pull on them until the nose, head, torso and the rest of the small body slid out. “There’s usually a lot of gasping” from the crowd during those moments, Remsberg says. Later, when a calf would struggle to its feet and stand for the first time, fairgoers would applaud and go wild.  

^^Becky and her colleagues assist a cow in labor at the Birthing Center.

Sometimes Remsberg needed to keep the crowds from going too wild. She says the excited spectators made a lot of noise, especially when piglets were born. Remsberg and other staffers had to caution the audience that too much noise would scare the sows. Students including Remsberg let the piglets spend some time with their mom before holding the newborns for people to pet. The birthing center provided opportunities for the public to experience livestock births in ways they’d never seen, heard or touched before.  

Likewise, the birthing center provided Remsberg with a unique educational experience in agriculture. The 19 year old grew up on her family’s farm in Maryland’s Harford County, but she says the most she learned about birthing was from her recent experience at the state fair. “I grew up raising sheep,” says Remsberg, but “it’s a very different experience than with cows and pigs.” She added that the students were allowed to do a little bit of everything at the birthing center, and with that hands-on experience “it’s as much an educational opportunity for students on the staff as it is for anyone else.”  

Remsberg says that opportunity will help her toward her professional goal of transforming her family’s 17-acre hobby farm into a larger, profitable business. Her experience with pigs at the birthing center will play a role because she eventually wants to add those animals to the farm. Remsberg’s vision for the family farm is to scale back the size of its existing sheep flock, acquire more land, build new facilities, and add a pastured pork enterprise, pastured broilers, and fruit trees. 

Her path to that goal is being paved in large part by studying Agricultural Business Management at the IAA. Most of Remsberg’s farming knowledge was handed down to her, but how to run a farm as a business was not part of that informal education. “Lots of courses here [at the IAA] have to do with finance,” Remsberg says, “and that’s incredibly helpful.” Marketing coursework through the IAA can also help her generate future profits on a revamped farm. She foresees initially marketing its future products through CSAs and farmers markets.

Remsberg is scheduled to graduate from the IAA in Spring of 2017. Her next step will be to apply to a 4-year degree program at the University of Maryland so that she can study livestock management. That continued education, along with plans to work as a UMD Extension agent, would bring Remsberg closer to her childhood dream of taking over the family farm. Despite her busy academic schedule, Remsberg plans on another stint at the state fair’s birthing center. “I learned so much,” Remsberg says. “I’ll be doing it again next year.”

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