Christine Byrne - Experience Trades Facilitator
While most of the outdoor experience areas at Conner Prairie are winding down for the season, the Animal Encounters
area is already gearing up for next spring. The final three months of the calendar year are a very busy time for the agriculture staff. In addition to stocking up on a winter’s supply of hay, it is also time for routine animal husbandry duties such as hoof trimming and general health inspections. Each animal will be evaluated and a decision will be made about its future on the grounds. Just like every other working farm, some will be kept to breed and others will be sold.
In most modern breeding programs, a farmer has a plan for what traits he is trying to selectively breed for. He might hope to increase wool or meat production or strive to meet the breed conformation standard for showing. Conner Prairie’s rare breed program is a little different. Because we are working to preserve a historic breed we are not attempting to create a new and improved version of the animal, but increase the number of animals while carefully preserving the desired genetics. Also, given that our animals are visited by thousands of guests every day, our selection criteria put a higher score on temperament. In other words, we have the luxury of also selecting for cute and cuddly.
Once the decisions are made, the animals are separated into breeding groups, and then the dating game begins. In order to have spring lambs, kids or calves born throughout the season, the livestock manager must pay close attention to each animal’s gestation period. The gestation period is the length of time a mother is pregnant. So, for instance, a sheep’s average gestation period is 147 days. If we want the lamb to be born around April 15th the breeding would need to take place 147 days earlier on November 19th. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so much. The one thing that can be planned when working with animals is that something unplanned will happen. You never know, she might not be in heat or decide she has a headache that day. As you can imagine, it can become a bit of a juggling act. However, I have no doubt by the time the daffodils are blooming next spring, the mothers will all be settled and there will be plenty of cute and cuddly newborns in the Animal Encounters barn for everyone to enjoy in 2013.
Posted: 10/29/2012 9:45:07 AM
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Did you know there are YACs at Conner Prairie? No, not yaks, YACs: Youth Agriculture Captains. These are hand-picked leaders within the Youth Volunteer Program who are given extra agriculture, or “ag” responsibilities. I sat down with two of our YACs (14yo Grace and 17yo Dorian) for a youth’s-eye view of what it’s like to work with the animals.
Describe a typical day as a YAC.
Dorian and Grace:
If we’re working in Animal Encounters
, we like to get here early to help with morning chores. We make sure all the animals have water and hay, we sweep the barn, make up milk bottles for the babies and wash the dishes, pick the pens (which means throwing out the poo), and drop shavings and straw into the pens. We do this again in the afternoon. During the day, we talk to guests and help them interact with the animals. In 1836 Prairietown
we do many of the same things while in costume.
Doesn’t it scare you that an ox is so much bigger than you are?
Yeah, when a calf is born it weighs 60-90 pounds, and within a few years can weigh tons! I was a little cautious of Red and Blue (two of our oxen) my first year, but not anymore. As Kevyn (the ag manager) puts it, “We can control them because we have thumbs,” meaning we are smarter.
How did you learn what you need to know to be a YAC?
Dorian and Grace:
From the great ag staff! We attended several extra training sessions over the winter. We also took a fieldtrip to Trader’s Point Creamery and compared methods of milking. They use machines there. Here we use a combination of machine and hand-milking, depending on the temperament of the cow. In fact, we now have a fresh (milkable) cow again! Sarah the Jersey cow just delivered a bull calf on August 22nd. Guests should come out to see him. We also milk at the barn by the Golden Eagle in the afternoon whenever we have a fresh cow with the temperament to successfully be hand-milked.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do with the animals?
Working with the big cattle. Not a lot of kids get to halter oxen. Some YACs have helped with birthing. I was down in a pen with Polly, a Nubian goat, when she delivered. I held the newborn and helped it start milking.
I love Nubians! They are all ears and legs!
What are the most common challenges with interpreting the animals to our guests?
Well-meaning people don’t always understand the boundaries around animals because they aren’t exposed to them. Noise can frighten them. Elizabeth our new English Longhorn doesn’t like to be touched on the face. Cattle can’t see in front of them as their eyes are on the sides of their head. We YACs have to really be watching the animals to see if they are stressed and need to relax in the pasture.
Our goats are adventurous and we are always wrangling them. They love to investigate the backs of strollers because that’s where moms hide snacks.
Yeah, and remember when we had those turkeys who figured out how to open the doors to the Welcome Center using the automatic sensor?
Why should our guests care about animals?
Often city kids will call a calf a llama. I patiently explain to them which animals are which, because they need to understand animals are such an essential part of the lives of people in the past.
Don’t we have some rare breeds here?
Actually they’re so rare they’re technically extinct!
Conner Prairie owns three out of the 24 English Longhorns in the U.S. These are the only ones on public display. Our new calf Elizabeth is important because she’s not inbred - her dad is from England. In the 1800s this breed was really common, but then other breeds like shorthorns become more popular.
Aren’t Randall Linebacks also very rare?
Yup, Red and Blue, Conner Prairie’s oxen, are a rare breed.
What is your favorite weird animal fact?
Goats, cattle, and sheep have no top teeth except back molars. They can’t really bite you unless you have your hand way back in their mouths. And that’s just too personal anyway!
Posted: 9/11/2012 12:10:01 PM
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When we in the Ag staff are lucky, every now and again we get the chance to welcome a new baby into the world here at Conner Prairie. I am awed by the experience every time. I can’t help it! It’s fascinating! We get to hear those sounds that a new mother makes when talking to her baby for the first time. We get to see those first bounces that babies take as they become accustomed to their new legs. But an animal in labor is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s kind of an untidy business, which doesn’t bother me, but I have to remind myself that as many times as I get to witness a birth, it’s something our guests almost never get to see, so they’re not exactly used to it. And so I offer it up as a disclaimer, watching an animal give birth is very messy. There. You’ve been warned.
Due to the nature of having babies, it’s not something you can plan to happen while we’re open to the public so folks can witness it. Every now and again, our guests get lucky and walk into Animal Encounters
at just the right time and get to see a lamb take its first breath or first wobbly steps to nurse from its mother. Mostly what will happen though is that our animals decide they are going to wait until we’ve closed to the public for the day. If we see that this might be the case, we continually check up on the expectant mothers as often as we can and make ourselves available to assist should anything go wrong in the birthing process. Though nature has made our animals perfectly capable of birthing without assistance, we love them so much we just like to make sure. So, a couple weeks ago, after all our guests had gone and Conner Prairie was calm and quiet, our English Longhorn heifer (a heifer being an immature female - she becomes a cow after she has her first calf), Mary, crossed into “cowhood” and became a mother.
Now, I can hear you asking your computer screen, “What’s so special about this? She didn’t even give birth so people could watch her. Where’s the pomp? Where’s the circumstance?!” Keep reading. I’ll explain, but first I need to give you a little background.
Here at Conner Prairie we have seven rare breeds of animals on the property. We pride ourselves in doing our part, not only at keeping these particular breeds in the public consciousness, but also as a living history site, at staying true to what was popular and common for our ancestors. If you were to look up these seven rare breeds from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
(ALBC), you would only be able to find six of them. The English Longhorn will not be there. The ALBC requires at least 20 breeding females in order to be considered a viable breed. In the whole United States there are only 15 females and Conner Prairie is the only place you can go to see the breed on display (the rest are on a private farm). That brings us back to Mary. On July 10, she gave birth to her first calf. It was a girl! And as we had begun naming the Longhorn heifers for English Queens, we thought giving her the name Elizabeth, or “Bess” for short, seemed appropriate.
Now, that in and of itself is pretty amazing, isn’t it? We’ve increased the numbers on a breed so rare that it’s not even on the rare breeds list AND it’s a girl! Exciting stuff right?! But wait! There’s more!
When folks started trying to bring back the English Longhorn in the mid 1990s, there were only two cows and they happen to be full sisters. With the options for breeding being so few, all the Longhorns that are in the United States today have descended from these two females and as a result are quite inbred. Not exactly the right foundation on which to rebuild a breed, eh? This is what makes Elizabeth extra special. We, the Ag staff, were able to import semen from England, where the breed is more established, to artificially inseminate Mary. This makes Bess the first outcross in the country! So, if you’re keeping score at home, Elizabeth’s birth has increased the numbers on a breed so rare they’re not even on the rare breeds list, she’s a heifer which means there’s one more future breeding female in the country, and she comes from a new set of genetics which means she’s the only English Longhorn in the country that’s not fully related to any of the others! She sure has accomplished a lot for only being a few weeks old.
As you can imagine, all of us are pretty excited to welcome Bess into the world and her life at Conner Prairie. Be sure to come on out to 1836 Prairietown to congratulate Mary on a job well done, I think she would appreciate it. And come take a peek at our latest addition, a true living and breathing piece of history.
Posted: 8/1/2012 8:54:15 AM
Ellen Van Zanten
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Rosie Arnold - Education Programs Manager
Hi! My name is Rosie Arnold, and I’m Conner Prairie’s Education Programs Manager. That means I spend most of my time creating programs and activities for both our school and general audiences.
I recently finished grad school, and so my head is still full of research data and technical terminology. One of my favorite things I learned in grad school was a concept called informal or “free-choice” learning. Essentially this means any kind of learning that takes place outside the traditional classroom setting, like watching TV, attending a play, or (most importantly for me) visiting a museum. This type of learning is particularly powerful because it is driven by people’s interests. We are all free to choose when, where, and what to learn. Best of all, research shows that free-choice learning works best when people are having fun!
So that’s my job- to make learning fun. To do that, I ask myself a few simple questions.
1. Do I like what I’m working on? If I don’t like a program I’m creating, how could I expect anyone else to like it either?
2. Would a kid like what I’m working on? What would my fourth-grade self have thought about this activity? If she wouldn’t have liked it or understood it, fix it.
3. Am I creating a “real” experience? I can’t tell you how often we get asked if our fires/bugs/food/buildings/you-name-it are real. (For the record, the answer is almost always yes.) I plan to elaborate on this phenomenon in a later post. For now I’ll just say that most of us live our lives on a screen, so my goal is to create experiences where people can put those away for a while and instead focus on something authentic, tangible, and, dare I say, real.
4. How can I make a “required” subject exciting? Conner Prairie serves approximately 50,000 students a year, and there’s no getting around the fact that most of them must meet certain academic standards. But there’s also no reason we can’t help students learn about required (and therefore often perceived by kids as boring) subjects in a fun way. Need to learn about the causes of removal of Native American Indian groups in Indiana? Go talk to a real member of the Lenape tribe, in Lenapehoking. Have to observe, compare, and record the physical characteristics of animals? Meeting Shelly the goat or Ed the sheep in the Animal Encounters barn will help.
5. Will this spark someone’s curiosity? There’s no way you can learn everything there is to know about a particular topic in one hour-long program. And we’re okay with that. However, history is chock-full of interesting tidbits, and I try to include just enough of them to spark your curiosity. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll go home and want to learn more on your own. And that, after all, is the most powerful kind of learning there is.
Posted: 1/25/2012 9:55:23 AM
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Pamela Jackson - Guest Services
A lot can happen in a year. In June 2010 I began writing this blog, just as Conner Prairie was seeing record attendance and popularity for its programs. Now in 2011, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park is reinventing itself yet again. I’m talking about the opening of the 1863 Civil War: Raid on Indiana
experience, which debuted in early June.
I can truly say I’m excited about what I saw and did in my own tour of the 1863 Civil War Journey and eager to hear the reactions of our guests. This is different from anything Conner Prairie has ever attempted before. Do join us this season and immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring stories of Indiana’s brush with Morgan’s Raiders in 1863. I came away with a feeling of great pride, not only in what our ancestors were able to accomplish, but in the vision of the many people who worked countless hours to bring this experience to life for our guests.
But hey – let’s not forget that Conner Prairie is more than just one exhibit. We still have numerous other attractions to interest you and your family. It’s still 1836 in Prairietown, 25 years ahead of the Civil War, and the residents are busy working in their homes or gardens, making plans for the upcoming 60th anniversary of our country’s birth on July 4, or yes, gossiping about their neighbors (which they love to share with you!). There are baby animals in the Animal Encounters Barn
who need to be fed and petted, Lenape Camp is hosting tomahawk throwing contests, and William Conner’s Homestead is still standing vigil on the prairie (actually a flood plain), as it has since 1823.
So come out to Conner Prairie Interactive History Park this summer and see what’s new about the 1800s. There’s always something exciting going on!
Posted: 6/21/2011 2:32:12 PM
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Why a Soldier Returns to Civil War Days
See, Feel, Smell the Civil War
Our Mother’s Day Tradition is Conner Prairie
A Year in the Life of a Conner Prairie Volunteer