When classroom instruction stopped a year ago at Cal Poly Pomona, much of the university emptied, leaving the lecture halls deserted and over 1,400 acres of mostly unoccupied land.
Tory Simpfenderfer, 23, remained behind. One of the university’s eight resident students, she has spent the last year tending to the cattle on campus – around 200 sheep, pigs, goats and cattle. There is even a llama.
Part of the university’s Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture, animal husbandry is at the heart of the curriculum – inside and outside the classroom – in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences. Since the late 1970s, animals have grazed the land and hills surrounding the university, including approximately 330 acres of rangelands and 100 acres of irrigated pasture.
But over the past year, cattle have been deprived of much of the interaction with students they experienced before the university shut down most day-to-day operations due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although animals aren’t that many these days, they still require the same amount of care, Simpfenderfer said.
While most of the campus is shrouded in silence at 6 a.m., Simpfenderfer is already immersed in pig feeding and performing welfare checks on newborn goats. At 7 a.m. the animal bedding was replaced and the pig foot baths are well underway. At 8 am, she gets ready for the day’s class.
“When I started and it was still dark you could hear 30 pigs screaming from hunger and it was terrifying,” recalls the freshman graduate student. “It’s an interesting way to start your day, for sure. “
Currently, the university is home to around 100 breeding adult sheep, 30 goats and 25 pigs, said Alicia Seaman, head of the department’s sheep and pig unit. Other animals on campus include the horses at the WK Kellogg Arabian Horse Center, available to students through a minor in equine studies.
While the students were away, there was no noticeable change in the behavior of the animals, said Efrain Loera, who supervises the cattle on campus. The cows were left to roam and eat grass all day long, without anyone disturbing them, he said.
“They’re a little more fearful but the animals haven’t really been affected at all… they don’t know COVID-19 exists,” Loera said. “Since the start of the pandemic the beef cattle have just grazed or even here in the hills, they stay busy and just enjoy life. “
In recent years, the university has showcased much of its nearby cattle to the LA County Fair, held in Fairplex. Goats, sheep and pigs are being bred in preparation so that many actually have their babies during the fair.
There are four different breeding groups during the year, fluctuating between 16 and 20 hatchlings for most animal breeds. So far in 2021, there hasn’t been a big difference in the number of newborns, Seaman said.
Meanwhile, the Cal Poly Pomona Discovery Farm, which includes an interactive farm with 26 animals, remains closed due to the pandemic. In a typical year, the farm is visited by 30,000 to 40,000 people, through various field trips and events like the annual pumpkin festival, the university said.
With animals navigating the pandemic well, the biggest changes to the program have come in the form of research. Projects range from saliva testing to building breathing chambers to study methane emissions from sheep, a study in which Simpfenderfer is currently participating.
“There has been increasing interest and demand for these types of studies in recent years,” Simpfenderfer said. “Most of us hope to be published in a scientific journal someday, but we’ll see.
Meanwhile, much of the hands-on learning that students traditionally receive in the program has been lost due to the pandemic. The volunteers who would typically help the livestock are gone and the labs have mostly been relegated to online videos, said Shelton Murinda, chairman of the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences.
“We quickly realized that it was not really easy to run laboratories involving animals without animals. We had to film animal units while the staff did some activities with sheep and then use them for training, ”said Murinda.
“It’s not the same but it’s better than nothing,” he added.
While questions remain about how the classes and labs will look in the fall, Murinda is optimistic things will return slowly but surely, including the return of the labs in person. It is a hope shared by students and teachers, he said.
“You can’t replace hands-on learning,” Murinda said. “It’s been a part of our university for decades and it will come back. “
But as the pandemic goes through a full calendar year, an animal will also mark the occasion for a different reason this month.
On March 26, Oreo, a dorper lamb with black and white fur, will celebrate his first birthday with a live party. Born of a triplet and one of the first animals delivered last spring as the pandemic intensified and state universities closed, Oreo’s name was chosen by the public in a competition that gave 900 registrations.
“We’re going to have a little party for Oreo that will include other lambs and even a birthday cake,” Seaman said. “It’s just a little something to celebrate in what has been a different year for us and of course the animals.”