The Baby Bottle Lamb Project, Behind the Scenes at the Albemarle County Fair

by April Schweitzer

It's 7:00 a.m. at the Pierson home in Keswick and duty calls for 12-year-old Joshua and 9-year-old Zachary. Bleary eyed but excited, they head out the back door to the once-carport, now-sheep pen where four baby lambs – Fred, Smudge, Snowball and Billy – wait for their morning feeding

As soon as they arrive, Fred jumps up against the chicken wire fence that Mr. Pierson constructed around the edges of the pen. "He always goes after the food," Joshua explained, holding a bottle in one hand, "but Smudge isn't so enthusiastic." Four times a day the boys feed the young, orphaned lambs by bottle. Missing a feeding is bad for the lamb's tummies, so the boys try hard to stick to the same schedule. First thing in the morning at 7:00 a.m., again at noon, right before the family sits down to dinner at 6:00 p.m., and then mom does the last feeding at 11:00 p.m. "I feel like I'm a new mother again with all these bottles around the house," Kathy Pierson said, stooping to scoop straw out of the lambs' water bowl.

The lambs follow the Piersons around like – well, just like sheep. Curious and rambunctious, they hop in funny little sideways jumps up and over bales of straw. They nuzzle up to new friends and climb on the boys' laps. "It's fun to take care of them," Zachary said. "I like the way Snowball chases me around when I run. One time she jumped and did a cannonball off the straw." In a few weeks, the lambs will be weaned onto grain and will no longer rely on the Piersons for bottle feedings. Then the boys will begin the challenge of training their sheep for competition at the county fair.

The Pierson family is participating in the Bottle Baby Lamb Project, a new activity offered by the Albemarle County 4-H clubs. Starting in the spring, the boys care for the lambs and begin preparing them for showmanship competition at the county fair in late August. In September the lambs will be sold. At the fair, the boys will "have to maneuver the animals in certain configurations determined by the judges. It's a rigorous competition to determine who has worked the most with their animal," county extension agent Scott Byars said.

And how exactly do we do that? Kathy wondered as she watched Joshua's two lambs, Fred and Smudge, hop on, over and around her son in a friendly free-for-all. Kathy grew up participating in 4-H clubs, and her family raised cattle. Joshua, who is the more competitive of the two brothers, hopes his mom will be able to give them some tips to prepare for the fair. "I've never been able to get an animal to listen to me," Joshua confessed. "My rabbits ignore me. The chickens don't listen. The dog comes when he's called, but he's no Einstein."

The competition is still a couple of months off, so there's probably not too much to worry about. Besides, competing isn't what's most important. It's about the whole experience of raising the animals, learning the responsibility, and working together as a family.

"I've learned that it must be pretty neat to live on a farm," Zachary said. Bingo! That's exactly what Byars wants to hear. It's the reason why he helped start the Bottle Baby Lamb Project and the reason why he's busy brainstorming ideas for next year – goats? rabbits?

"It's a challenge getting children involved in livestock projects due to the urbanization of Albemarle County," Byars said. "You have to be creative, try different things because the face of agriculture is changing. Smaller pets and livestock lambs don't need a lot of space."

Thirteen-year-old Kendall Whitten agrees. For the last five years, she's been showing cattle at the fair, and she's the president of the Calf Club. But cattle are a lot of work, and they require a lot of space. "Sheep are really good to start with," she said. "And rabbits and chickens are good if you have a small house."

Most of Kendall's friends don't raise animals. "Or else they ride horses," she said. "There's a ton of people in the Hoof and Woof club. They don't come to the fair, but they do horse shows." Kendall's club only has five members, but she's hoping more kids will join. She enjoys raising the animals, and she loves competing in the fair. The Calf Club offers a way to meet more kids who like to do the same thing. But it's tough to find kids to participate in Albemarle County.

"Our county fair is a lot smaller than most county fairs," she said. "Greene and Orange have rows and rows of cattle." "We're trying to breathe more life into the county fairs," Byars said. "As the community grows and becomes more urban, people also want to get back to tradition and connect to each other and their roots. 4-H is a great way for the whole family to do that. It's not just Junior or Daisy playing a sport. Parents learn from this too. Some of them have never raised livestock before. We even have one family doing the lamb project in a subdivision in the Stony Point area."

To get involved with 4-H clubs, calf club, or livestock competitions, contact Staci England at 984-0727.

The Albemarle County Fair is celbrated each August. For more information, call 293-6396.

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