Maungatapere School families are getting lambs from as far away as South Auckland for this year's Ag Day due to a national shortage.
Lambs are typically sourced locally but this year are coming from as far afield as South Auckland, more than 185km away.
Increased demand for lambs because of cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis, fewer lambs produced than in previous years and later-than-usual lambing are among reasons for the shortage.
Some pupils are still without their own young ovine, more than a month behind schedule.
"They're really needing their lambs before the end of this month," Ag Day convener Michelle Ruddell said.
"They need to be able to spend two or three weeks minimum with their lamb to properly prepare it for Ag Day."
Ruddell said students are keen to receive their new charges as soon as possible and get on with building a connection with their animal — a crucial part of being able to present well at Ag Day.
About 10 of the 45 lambs expected to compete in the school's November 2 Ag Day can be found at a special on-site 'lamby day care' centre, where pupils feed, care for and train their lambs.
The 'lamby day care', set up on July 1 and closing at the end of term three, caters for pupils whose parents are working away from home during the day, and are therefore unable to feed the young animals while their children are at school.
Lambs from as young as 2 days old come to school with their pupil caregiver every morning and go home with them after school. Rostered helpers from senior classes help younger schoolmates with the task.
Lambs are also able to stay a few hours after school, should their pupil 'parent' be in the school's student after-school programme.
Pupils bring milk powder, bottles and anything else they need to care for their lambs to school. Milk for daily feeds is heated up in the school hall kitchen.
Lambs are fed every few hours when very young, typically staying at school for two to three weeks until their required feeding frequency drops to about three times a day.
This is the fourth year the school has had 'lamby day care', its presence boosting the number of lambs at the school's annual Ag Day.
"Ag Day is our school's identity. It's a way our school community can come together to celebrate its rural heritage," Ruddell said.
School principal Judy Eagles said the school sees Ag Day, and 'lamby day care', as an important part of being a rural community. Some families specifically enrolled their children at the school because of this.
"Being able to raise and care for lambs teaches key educational competencies for children including caring, responsibility and bonding," Eagles said.
Students learn to feed, look after and keep their lambs warm. They prepare milk and feed their lambs interval and lunchtime, not during school hours.
Feeding time is also used as an opportunity for pupil 'parents' to pet and play with their lambs, train them to lead and come when called — important requirements for Ag Day judging.
"The 'lamby day care' is positive for everybody," Eagles said.
Pupils who don't have a lamb often gather at day care creche — complete with large colourful butterfly art on the fence — to hang out with a new four-legged friend.
All the school's 320 pupils take part in Ag Day, leading lambs and goats, showing chickens and other pets, exhibiting model gardens and building recycled garden art. The school gets in a bulk order of chickens for pupils who want to show these at Ag Day.
Thirty-six brown shaver chickens and 10 goats will be part of the line-up.
Ag Day entrants can then go on to Whangarei Group Calf Club day at Barge Park on November 7, and even to Whangarei A&P show on December 7.
Maungatapere School's 'lamby day care' is modelled on one started by Otaika Valley School principal Terry Brock when he arrived at that school nine years ago.
"I brought my daughters' lambs here and it's grown from there," Brock said.
Otaika Valley School's lamb paddock has a constant flow of students throughout the day feeding lambs — and this year a single goat. The paddock has smart new fencing this year to make for easier management and allow for fence shifts, should grass run low.
It features a sturdy tin shed with hay-strewn floor and small, fenced-off outdoor area that has neatly lined up lamb leads hanging on its fence. A grassy padock opens off this area.
The annual Ag and Flower Day is Otaika Valley School's biggest event of the year, with all 150 pupils taking part.
Up to 14 lambs a day are in the lamb creche, and about 30 lambs — and one goat — will be entered at the big eventon October 25. Brock said Ag and Flower Day was an important rural tradition, which he too had grown up with at Maromaku School. One of its biggest benefits was giving children from town the valuable experience of raising a lamb.
He said the school's lamb paddock gave lamb 'mums' and 'dads' a space to do multiple feeds during the day and continue establishing the bond between child and lamb for Ag Day. This experience is shared with others who help lamb student 'parents'.
Disease spurs huge drop in entries
A ban on calves at Whangarei school pet days due to Mycoplasma bovis has caused a big drop in Maungatapere School's 2019 Ag Day animal numbers.
The number of animals at this year's Maungatapere School Ag Day has dropped by 22 per cent on when calves were last allowed at the event in 2017.
That drop was even greater the first year calves were banned due to Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis) - with animal numbers in 2018 dropping by a third over the previous year.
There were 161 animals (chickens, goats, lambs, calves and general pets) at the school's Ag Day in 2017 - the last year calves were included in the event before M. bovis impacted. This dropped by a third in 2018 to 113 animals - the first year calves were banned from the event due to M. bovis risk. There will be 125 animals this year.
Michelle Ruddell, Maungatapere School Ag Day convener, said all was not lost as a result. Forty per cent of students were still bringing a farm animal or pet to the 2019 Ag Day.
She was hoping calves would be added back into the mix for next year's 2020 school Ag Day.
An absence of calves has seen a big shift to art projects as calf numbers have declined, with a more than 60 per cent increase in the number of art projects - there are 105 art projects entered in this year's 2019 Ag day, compared with 39 in 2017, the last year calves were included.
The cattle disease means a new first for Maungatapere School this year. Display boards rather than live calves will be used for the first time to exhibit four Ag Day calves. The cattle disease means students are unable to take their live animals to the event as New Zealand's dairy and beef industries grapple with the potential risk of the disease's spread.