Learning Life Lessons Through 4-H Dairy Projects
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It’s a stifling, sultry summer afternoon at Sunrise Ridge Farm, a 78-acre spread in Warren County. The temperature is in the mid-90s, and the humidity isn’t far behind. Matthew Place, the N.C. Cooperative Extension livestock agent in the county, emerges from a barn with a handful of halters. His shirt, dark with sweat, sticks to his body as he lays the halters out.
“All right,” he says. “Y’all go catch them.”
Eight boys and girls obediently grab a halter, enter a small pasture, and target a small herd of dairy heifers.
“He’s determined to get them tired and dirty,” she says.
In truth, they don’t get very tired or dirty. It doesn’t take long to get the halters on the three Brown Swiss, the Guernsey and the Ayrshire calves. The kids quickly corral them and line them up, ready for inspection.
Not bad, considering none of them had worked with cattle until just a few short weeks ago.
“When you know these kids have zero previous experience, they are doing great,” Day said.
“I’ve done the chicken show before, but that’s the only other animal show I’ve done,” says Grace Lumsden, a 16-year-old participant. “It’s been different, learning how to show a larger animal. We have to lead them in the ring, and we have to walk backwards. I’ve never led a cow before.”
Grace is typical of the current generation of 4-H dairy youth. There was a time when shows were dominated by the children of dairy farmers, but that’s not how it is these days.
“It used to be, these dairy shows and the dairy program were mostly done by the kids who grew up on dairies,” Day said. “They had access to dairy cows and an interest in dairy cows because that’s what their families did. Little by little, we’re seeing our dairy farm population aging, and we ran out of kids.”
The Central Carolina District dairy show in Orange County, where Day has her office, was typical. Twenty years ago it was down to less than half a dozen participants. So she reached out to non-dairy kids — specifically the kids attending her daughter’s Montessori school in Durham County.
“We started a calf project at the school and had more than double the amount of kids at the calf show that spring,” she said. “We went from five kids to 11. It was awesome!”
The project aimed at non-traditional youth expanded gradually. There was a second, a third, a fifth. Recently, there has been another growth spurt.
“In the last two or three years it’s just gone crazy,” Day said. “This year we have 11 calf projects. We’ve had to add another district dairy show because we have so many kids showing in the eastern part of the state. It’s so exciting because we’re getting all these kids who would never have had an opportunity to show a dairy calf because they didn’t grow up on a farm and don’t have access to dairy cattle.”
Place is glad to have the opportunity to introduce 4-H youth in his county to dairy cattle.
“We haven’t had a livestock show in this county in five or six years,” he said. “The kids have to put in the time and the effort. If they absolutely hate it, they only have to deal with this for nine weeks. But I don’t think we’ve had a kid yet that’s not had fun.”
The increased interest has led to some logistical challenges. Day has had to scramble to find enough heifers and places to keep them.
The calves in Warren County are on loan from a veterinarian in Galax, Virginia, and are being kept on a farm owned by Jimmy Harris, a veteran cattleman who raises Black Angus. Harris has become an enthusiastic partner, helping with the classroom instruction and passing on helpful life lessons.
“I think everybody needs to give to the next generation, and this was one way of doing it,” he said. “I’m glad to donate the time and the facilities and the labor. This is something they will carry with them from now on, the things that they’ve learned here.”
In Guilford County, 10 4-H youth participating in a Cooperative Extension dairy calf project are working with Jersey heifers purchased with a generous donation from North Carolina Farm Bureau, the North Carolina Dairy Producers Association, and Small Acres Dairy. These calves will travel the eastern half of the state doing four separate projects this year.
The Guilford County project is providing opportunities for children from urban environments.
“These are kids who do not come from ag backgrounds,” said Corey Burgess, manager of the dairy unit at North Carolina A&T State University, which hosts calf practice three days a week. “These kids are getting the opportunity to see and do something they might not ever do again in their life. They come in and see a cow for the first time and they’re like, ‘Aw, I don’t think we’re going to be able to do this Mr. Corey.’ And then to be able to take that cow with confidence and walk it into the ring among fellow peers and adults and be judged, to be able to do that with confidence, that’s the most gratifying part about it.”
See a cow for the first time? Some of these kids have literally never seen a cow before?
“Not outside a Chick-fil-A commercial,” he laughed.
Whether in rural Warren County, more urban Guilford County, or any of the other 11 counties participating in dairy calf projects, whether they are veterans of other animal projects or have never before seen a cow, all 4-H dairy show participants have the same experiences. In a few short weeks they learn how to handle a calf, how to show the calf — lead it while walking backwards, stop it so the front legs are even, shoulder-width apart and one back leg is in front of the other — and about the parts of the calf.
“The focus in these district 4-H dairy shows is showmanship,” Day said. “The kids are being placed according to how well they show off their heifer, and how much they’ve learned, if they can answer the judges’ questions. We’ve been teaching them not just about handling, but about the dairy industry, nutrition and all the finer points of raising dairy cows.”
It’s possible that some of the participants will become dairy farmers, replacing some of those kids lost over the years. That’s the goal of Ella Cruz, a 14-year-old from Rockingham County who is participating in the project in Greensboro.
“I got into it because I’ve always loved the dairy industry,” she said. “This is everything I wanted to do. I’m hoping one day to own my dairy farm. You can take something from an animal and turn it into something else. I think that’s fascinating.”
But that’s not really the aim of the program. Instead, Day hopes for other outcomes, equally as positive.
To start, there’s the hope that they get “tired and dirty.” In an era when Americans of all ages spend increasing amounts of time indoors staring at screens of various sizes, it’s good to simply get outside and do something that’s a little difficult.
“I like for them to get their hands dirty when they come out here,” Burgess said. “A lot of kids these days just stay in the house on their cell phones and video games. This is a good opportunity for them to get dirty a little bit and breathe some of this beautiful fresh air that we have.”
Even though it didn’t take long for the Warren County crew to get the halters on the heifers, they were definitely tired and dirty by the end of the class. The calves weigh between 300 and 800 pounds. Leading one around the ring on a sweltering afternoon — especially when the calf can be stubborn and needs some encouragement to keep moving — isn’t easy.
The heat wasn’t quite as unbearable at a morning class in Guilford County, but it’s still hot, sweaty work.
“We’re trying to teach them some skills for overcoming adversity and some competitiveness, and get them out of the house,” said Cole Maness, Extension livestock agent in Guilford County. “Teach them a little bit about hard work and dedication, putting in that time and effort and seeing some results from it.”
There’s also the benefit of helping the youth learn more about their food supply, and to gain an appreciation for those who produce it. The program includes tours of a dairy farm or two, usually including NC State’s Howling Cow Dairy Education Center and Creamery.
“These kids and their families now have a hands-on, face-to-face experience with dairy cattle and dairy farmers,” Day said. “It helps them understand what a crazy amount of work and the investment that goes into producing their food.”
And, like all 4-H programs, there are other tangible and intangible benefits.
“The overarching goal to me is not just introducing youth to agriculture and dairy but creating good stewards for the future,” said Sarah Paschall, Extension 4-H agent in Guilford County. “They’ve experienced the dairy industry at a personal level as well as different aspects of the agriculture field. But also they’re learning responsibility. They have a commitment to this program, they’re seeing it through. You are creating some future leaders whether they stay in agriculture or not. Our goal here is to provide them with some extra skills to help them along the way as well as play with some calves.”
April Williams, a 2002 graduate of NC State with a social work degree, appreciates those aspects. That’s what she was looking for when she enrolled her sons Joshua, 10, and Austin, 9, in the Warren County program.
“We wanted to get them involved in something that gives them responsibility and accountability,” she said. “They are learning how to be patient, that’s one of the first things they told them about working with cows. They’ve also learned about the parts of a cow, the feed, and incorporating math and science and nature. It’s a well-rounded project. I want my kids to experience different things. Being from Warren County, we’re rural, the county is kind of high poverty. People say there’s not a lot of things to do. There are things to do, you just have to find them. When I saw this I wanted my kids to be part of it.”