A Passion for Animal Preservation
When people ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes struggle to explain. Saying, “I manage the livestock and agriculture experiences at Conner Prairie,” just feels lacking because what my team does here at Conner Prairie is so much more than can be summed up in a simple sentence.
When people find out I work with livestock, the response I hear most often is, “Oh! I love visiting Animal Encounters. That must be so fun getting to play with the baby animals all day.” I have to smile. Yes, spring is an exciting time. There is little that matches the joy we feel when we walk into a barn and hear the tell-tale squeaks of a newborn baby goat as it explores its new world. Seeing a calf nibbling on grass for the first time puts a smile on our faces and we love watching the antics of the lambs racing around the pasture as much as our guests do!
The experience we provide our guests is unique; very few sites offer guests of all ages the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s rarest breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, and goats in a safe, engaging, and educational environment. The Agriculture Team (Ag Team) loves facilitating those experiences and engaging with our guests about our heritage breeds.
The dedicated Agriculture Team at Conner Prairie is made up of three full-time staff members and several intensively trained part-time staff members. In addition to these staff members, we have an outstanding group of hand-selected youth volunteers called Youth Agriculture Captains or “YACs” for short. Although our Ag Team members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, they all share one thing: a passion for preserving heritage breeds.
Protecting Conner Prairie’s Critically-Endangered Livestock
In addition to the daily public facing duties, having the opportunity to work with Conner Prairie’s livestock has a lot of behind-the-scenes perks. I love taking a moment during a busy day to stand under the shade of a maple tree and watch the cows graze lazily in the afternoon sun. I love seeing the grounds sparkle as the light hits the first hard frost of winter while I’m working on morning chores. I love watching our YACs mature into outstanding young adults, heading off to make a difference in the world. I love seeing the smiles on guests’ faces as they feel a sheep’s soft wool or help gather fresh eggs, and hearing the giggles of a young child who finally got up enough courage to touch a goat and realized it wasn’t scary at all! I love sending off registration papers for our pigs, sheep, and goats every year, knowing that the work we’re doing is helping to increase the numbers of these critically endangered breeds. There are a lot of things to love about being a part of Conner Prairie’s agriculture program.
As with most things in life, however, things aren’t always perfect. What our guests may not see is the literal blood, sweat, and tears that are poured into making the program successful, keeping our livestock and guests safe, and ensuring that our animals receive the best possible care. Tending seven different species of animals, each with its own dietary, management, housing, and handling needs is a challenge requiring lots of specialized research, training, and experience.
Caring for Animals is a 24/7/365 Job
Animals don’t take vacations, and they need to be fed every single day regardless of what is happening in the world. The Ag Team is on property 365 days per year (and 366 on leap years, of course!). There is no such thing as a snow day for us, and extra cold days mean extra work, bundling up like marshmallows and checking water tanks to make sure they don’t freeze over. Springtime storms mean downed tree limbs that sometimes fall on fences, so often late-night storms mean late night trips to make sure the animals are safely where they are supposed to be. Melting snow and rain create lots of mud, so we spend a lot of time rotating pastures to make sure our animals have clean dry ground. Blazing hot July days mean drinking lots of extra water and working on an awesome farmer’s tan while we make sure our shelters are in good repair to offer the animals shade. Rainy days often mean we’re soaked to the skin by 10:00 a.m.
Not surprisingly, animals don’t just work 9:00 to 5:00, and neither do we. During lambing/kidding/calving season, my team and I make lots of late-night trips to work to check on the expectant mothers, often only to be greeted with some sleepy sheep irritated when we wake them up! Most of our mothers take great care of their babies, but occasionally one needs a little extra help. Lambs and kids on bottles need to be fed roughly every four hours for the first several days of life, meaning they have to come home with us overnight so we can make sure they’re warm and fed.
There is no denying that the work that goes on behind-the-scenes to keep the farm running can be physically challenging too. We unload and stack thousands of bales of hay each year to ensure our animals have plenty to eat throughout the winter. What seems like weekly trips to the feed mill and farm supply store ensures our animals have the supplemental nutrition and clean bedding they need to be healthy. We monitor miles of fence line to ensure the animals’ safety, and we spend long hours in the heat and cold repairing and replacing fences. All that nutritious hay ends up somewhere after it’s been consumed, so daily pen picking and annual barn deep cleaning ensures our animals have a healthy, sanitary environment. Basic routine veterinary care, such as shearing, trimming hooves, and vaccinating is time consuming and labor intensive, but keeps our animals healthy. Setting up temporary fencing allows us to rotationally graze our pastures, maximizing our animals’ nutrition. We drive hundreds of miles across the country to pick up a new animal, finding new genetics to add to our herd in order to help guarantee the survival of these rare breeds. All of this has to happen to keep the program functioning at its best.
As much joy as working with animals brings, sometimes there are sad days too. Just like humans, animals get sick or hurt from time to time, and it’s our job to do everything we can to take care of those animals when they need us most. We work closely with our veterinarians to create appropriate treatment plans for each animal’s specific needs. Even knowing you’ve done everything you can to make sure that animal is safe and comfortable, it’s still hard wishing you could do more. And there are days when you have to say goodbye to an animal you’ve worked with for years. You can take comfort in knowing they’ve lived a good life, but it never gets easier.
What the Ag Team does is far from easy. Long hours, sore muscles, dirty clothes, and sleepless nights are the name of the game. So why, you might ask, would someone want to do this kind of work? My answer is one word: passion.
Our Passion for Preserving Heritage Breeds
Every single member of the Ag Team is passionate about what they do. They come to work each day with excitement and enthusiasm, knowing that their efforts are making a difference to both the guests they meet and the animals for which they care. They know they are inspiring curiosity about science, agriculture, and history in future generations. They know they are helping to create incredible family memories. They know they are encouraging people to connect with agriculture. They know that the work they are doing is helping to give rare breeds a fighting chance of survival for generations to come.
I firmly believe that passion is apparent to our guests. You can feel it in the enthusiasm our team has when they are working with a group of energetic fourth graders. You can see it in the smiles on our faces as we watch a child’s excitement as they gently touch a baby goat. You can hear it in our voices as we discuss how amazing these rare breeds are. That passion is truly what makes Conner Prairie’s agriculture experiences so amazing.
As the Livestock Manager, I could not be prouder of my amazing team, the dedication they show toward the animals, and the hard work they put in, day after day, to make this program successful.
So next time you visit Conner Prairie, I invite you to take a minute to get to know some of our outstanding agriculture staff and learn about how you, too, can get passionate about preserving amazing heritage breeds!
About the Author
Stephanie Buchanan is the Animal Encounters Manager at Conner Prairie. After starting as a youth volunteer in 2005, she worked part-time through college until joining the full-time Agriculture Staff in 2013. On the rare occasion she’s not at Conner Prairie, she enjoys hiking, running, and reenacting – anything to get outside!