CORVALLIS, Ore. — When Oregon State University cut the budget for the Sheep Center in 2012, many in the industry thought it would cease to exist.
Today, however, a dedicated half-time OSU staff manager, 50 student volunteers to help with winter lambing and eight paid students each term continue to produce a flock of sheep and a small herd of goats to use for education and research.
Located on 600 acres of hillside pastures west of the main campus, the center provides hands-on experience and education for students majoring in animal science.
Mary Smallman, an instructor, researcher and center director, earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 2006 and a master’s in animal science with a minor in biochemistry and biophysics in 2018. She divides her time between the classroom, research lab and the center.
“When students leave here with a degree, they are going to have hands-on experience how to operate a farm,” Smallman said. “Our mission here is to introduce as many kids as possible to the sheep industry both as producers and consumers. I’ve had kids come into program saying they really didn’t like sheep and leave with a desire to raise them on their farm.”
Smallman was born and raised on a farm three miles outside Corvallis, and credits growing up with sheep and 4-H for her continued love of the industry.
“It’s been hard work to keep the center going, but these student volunteers are a group of kids who do what they can to help,” Smallman said. “We have students who work around the clock doing everything from helping on a research project to shoveling out the pens.”
Smallman said she sees her role as a “mentor rather than micro manager.”
“We operate the facility much like a club, which means they vote on a secretary, feeding crew lead, project coordinator and a crew boss,” she said. “If a student has a term in which they can’t be a crew boss, they may be able to be a feeder. We work like a family and the animals are treated well.”
Funding isn’t an issue for the center, she said.
“Our funding is secure because we generate it. We support our forage specialist, Dr. (Serkan) Ates, with his grazing trials, and keep 164 maternal ewes to produce lambs for medical research and other research projects,” Smallman said. “We hope to be getting a tractor so we can use it to start renovating the pastures, we got a grant to pay for a new roof on the old red barn and a new guard donkey that works 24/7 on predation, allowing us to utilize more pasture and get more animals outside.”
Another investigator in the department, Massimo Bionaz, has applied for a grant to feed hemp, “so I’m eager to see if we get that. My rule is, if an animal doesn’t pay its way, it goes,” she said. “We are just beginning.”
Smallman, who raises a few Baby Doll Southdown sheep of her own, is not only learning how to spin wool but plans on teaching students how to do it as well.
“To help save the industry, these kids need to become involved in the complete cycle of the animals,” Smallman said. “They need to know about forages, lambing, nutrition and disease, about the composition of the meat as well as how to cook it and how to process their wool and fiber. I’m excited about the diversity within the sheep industry and hope to expose students to all of the many ways they can get involved.”