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Speical Section: Altamont Fair Preview Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 7, 2008
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
ALTAMONT Stuart Lyman has helped deliver scores of calves in the decades he’s been a veterinarian yet he still has a sense a wonder at seeing a new life begin.
“Every birth that’s successful is a pleasure,” he said. “I don’t think you get over it.”
Lyman wants to share that with fairgoers this year and has arranged for a birthing center at the Altamont Fair where spectators can watch a cow give birth each day.
He’s calling the exhibit “The Miracle of Birth.”
Lyman hopes it will “give people a reference point about what is the basis of life.” He went on, “Mice, elephants, people or cows it’s all birth, all mammals...It is a miracle, something to share...It’s something we’ve gotten away from.
“We don’t have the common experience of seeing life born. We each know a lot about a few things. This is a way to expand people’s horizons.”
He went on, “The milking parlor will be right behind us. And, I’ll say to the people, ‘That ice cream cone you’ll have tonight is the product of this.’”
The interaction is important to Lyman. “It really bugs me when you go to a convention and there’s a table with brochures and a video, but no personal contact. The goal at the fair is to not only show this but to respond to questions.”
Witnessing farm animals give birth used to be commonplace, said Lyman. But now, milk comes in bottles and beef comes in plastic wrap at the supermarket; most Americans are cut off from the source of their food.
Not Lyman. Farming is in his blood and he and his wife continue the tradition at their Delmar farm. Once a year for more than 30 years, they share their talents his in veterinary medicine, hers in working with wool at the tri-county fair in Altamont.
Born in Connecticut, Lyman comes from a family that still has the family farm in Middlefield, started in 1744. At that time, the farm had diverse crops but focused on hay, which was sold in Connecticut cities where animals were used for transportation, he said.
“Eventually, it became a dairy farm,” Lyman said. “The dairy farm went out the summer that I started vet school.”
Now the farmland has orchards and two golf courses, he said.
Lyman decided in high school he wanted to be a veterinarian. He went to the Ag School at Cornell for his undergraduate degree and began at the vet school in 1969.
He came to work at the Delmar Animal Hospital in 1974 and is still there. “Once upon a time, the practice was mostly large animals,” he said. “Now the practice is essentially small animals.”
There are still eight dairy producers in Albany County, which Lyman tends to.
He and his wife, Jane, live on a farm in Delmar. “Jane has been the farmer part of the family,” said Lyman.
The Lymans started with pick-your-own strawberries, raspberries, and pumpkins and expanded to raise sheep and draft horses.
“A side of effect of having sheep is you have a lot of wool around,” said Lyman. Jane Lyman processes and dyes the wool.
She spins, weaves, and knits with the wool and has entered her crafts at the Altamont Fair for over three decades. She helped create the Wool Nook in the fair’s sheep barn where items made from wool are displayed.
This year, said Lyman, prompted by his wife, there will be a drawing for a hand-felted bear, made in Westerlo, which he described as “quite extraordinary.” Fair-goers will also be able to buy a chance on a shawl that will be made entirely at the fair. The wool, which comes from the Lymans’ farm, will be spun and woven at the fair.
“A good sharing experience”
Asked how he came up with the idea for the birthing center, Lyman said, “The fair needs something new for people to see.” He read about similar centers at state fairs in Maryland, Minnesota, and California.
“I said, ‘I can do that.’...Birth used to be an everyday experience for most people...Now we’re a couple of generations away from that. My sense was this would be a good sharing experience for people,” said Lyman.
Stanton Farms of Coeymans Hollow agreed to let Lyman use its pregnant cows. “They have enough cows that we have candidates for the week of the fair,” he said. “The idea is to bring a cow to the fair each day to deliver a calf.
“We can encourage the birth with hormones for a specific day. We can’t tell, though, if it will be at 8 in the morning or 10 at night.”
The Stantons have Holsteins, black and white cows that typically weigh 1,200 pounds. Newborn calves can weigh anywhere from 50 pounds on up to 125 pounds, said Lyman.
Cows are pregnant for a little more than nine months and usually give birth to a single calf. These days, ultrasound can be used to see the position of a calf inside the womb and to see if there is more than one calf, but it is not commonly done, said Lyman.
A tent will be set up at the fair near the cow barn that will be used solely for birthing. The cow will have comfortable bedding of shavings and straw, he said, and the spectators will have bleachers to sit on and watch.
“It’s entirely possible people will feel light-headed,” he said of witnessing the birthing process. “There’s a soft floor; if we have to lay them down, we can,” he said, to avoid fainting.
“We’ll have a big-screen TV with a video camera so everyone can see,” said Lyman. “If you want to close your eyes and peak now and then, you can do that, too.”
Videotaping the birth will allow people to see it throughout the day and Lyman and his crew will be able to answer questions from the spectators.
Some cows stand to give birth; most lie on their sides, he said. Labor typically lasts one to three hours; if it’s a cow’s first time delivering a calf, the labor tends to be longer, Lyman said.
Most cows give birth without a veterinarian present, Lyman said. He is usually called by farmers when something goes awry. Sometimes the calf is in a “confused position,” coming out backward; other times, twins are trying to come out at the same time, he said. The vet can reach in and re-position the calf; it’s extremely rare to do a Cesarean section, he said.
If such surgery were needed at the fair, the crowd wouldn’t be allowed to watch, he said. “Some things are probably not publicly appropriate,” said Lyman.
“This all happens with the cooperation of the cow,” he concluded. “It’s real and it’s live, with all the things that could happen and might be unexpected.”