GRAND ISLAND — For about 90 third graders from Dodge Elementary School in Grand Island on Wednesday, walking into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Birthing Pavilion at the Nebraska State Fair drew some shock at the number of newborns.

Around the room were several dozen babies who have been born there since the fair opened last Friday.

According to Dr. Vergil Heyer, a retired veterinarian from Ainsworth, there are more baby pigs, cows, chickens, sheep and other critters ready to enter the world before the State Fair concludes.

One of the proud mothers is a sow who had just given birth to an incredible 13 piglets. Next to the sow was a baby calf who was born the night before. Another cow was ready to give birth at any time.

Vandee Samelson, a teacher at Dodge, said they bring their third graders to the fair every year. One of the highlights for the youngsters is viewing the newborn animals at the Birthing Pavilion.

Samelson said they bring the children to different areas of the fair during their visit.

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Three-fourths of Nebraska’s citizens live in cities. Samelson said that for many of the students, coming to the fair allows them to see the livestock industry up close and personal. The Birthing Pavilion is next to the livestock barns, so the students can see new life and how they mature to adulthood.

Those newborn pigs will grow very fast after birth. Six months from now, they will weigh more than 270 pounds and be ready for market. The mother sow will produce about 2.5 litters per year.

“They (the kids) are very infatuated with the animals and babies who have been born,” Samelson said.

For the third graders, she said, the fair is a giant classroom introducing them to all aspects of Nebraska’s agricultural industry.

“We want to have well-rounded students,” Samelson said. “To do that, we have to expose them to as much as we can that is within our world.”

And at the Nebraska State Fair, she said, “You can’t get any better than the real thing.”

Heyer has been a volunteer at the Birthing Pavilion for many years, including when the fair was in Lincoln.

Before the move to Grand Island, the Birthing Pavilion was in a tent, he said.

“When the fair moved to Grand Island, they put us in a facility where we could showcase the state’s livestock industry,” Heyer said.

Throughout his years volunteering at the Birthing Pavilion, he said, it is always a big thrill for kids to see the baby pigs, calves, chicks and lambs.

“It is a big day for these kids,” Heyer said. “They have been looking forward to coming out here since school started.”

Samelson said the visit to the State Fair generates a lot of discussion the next day in the classroom for the kids.

Heyer said that is a good thing because the Birthing Pavilion is an educational experience for all ages. All around the room are posters telling visitors about the animals they are seeing.

Volunteers and veterinarians such as Heyer also are there to answer any questions.

“A lot of times, misinformation is more commonplace than noninformation,” he said. “We try to visit with the folks and answer their questions.”

The beauty of the Birthing Pavilion is that one of the critters could give birth any moment during the fair, and the public could witness it.

“This is the real thing,” Heyer said. “These are the animals as you see them out on a farm or a ranch, and (people) can see them up close instead of seeing them by the highway. Animal agriculture is a major part of our economy. Even if you are not a livestock owner, it is still critical to the livelihood of the state.”

He said that for many of the fair visitors, a visit to the Birthing Pavilion is their first time seeing baby livestock up close. For others, it provides a chance to relive memories from their childhood when they may have lived on a farm or ranch or had a relative who did.

“And we do get a few old farmers and ranchers who come in and say, ‘I used to do that, and I don’t miss it,’ ” Heyer said.

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