One of the hallmark educational methods in the Texas 4-H Program is livestock projects. Texas is blessed to have some of the best county, state and major livestock shows in the world. These shows provide both 4-H and FFA members with the opportunity to exhibit their livestock projects, market animals in premium auctions, and secure scholarships. More specifically, experiencing the livestock project provides an avenue for robust youth development that is unquestionably one of the most effective teaching models available. Through livestock projects, Extension agents teach leadership, animal science principles and STEM, responsibility, financial management, career development and sportsmanship.
The challenge for Extension agents is ensuring that there is a balance with the aforementioned life skills development and the competitive nature of exhibiting livestock. Livestock project families too often get so caught up in the competitive aspects of showing livestock that they forget why they signed their children up for livestock projects in the first place. The Extension agent should play an important role in the supervision of 4-H livestock projects. The Extension agent should provide the educational underpinning that guides the ethical, subject matter, and leadership development aspects of the project. Extension agents must recognize that when they surrender the leadership of the 4-H livestock program to others they have compromised the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s important role in education. While this sounds easy enough, it simply is not. There must be a trust factor between the Extension agent and the family if the livestock project is to be a holistic success. The most effective tool that Extension agents have to build trust is to visit the family’s livestock project feeding facility.
The project visit takes on various forms. For beginning feeders, Extension agents may spend significant time discussing facility, health, feeds and feeding, showmanship, selection and exercise. As the family gains experience and expertise Extension agents may simply drop by, evaluate livestock well-being and contact the family with observations for improvement. Some Extension agents are uncomfortable checking livestock species where they lack expertise. No one wants to get questions they do not have the answer to or worse yet-offer inaccurate advice to families trusting your position in the community. Extension agents must not be concerned with having all of the answers but show the willingness to go get the answers from other agents or specialists. There is something to be said about visiting a family at their home. Just one visit a year can potentially cultivate trusting relationships and immeasurable influence with the family.
Competition is undoubtedly a major contributing factor to the rich history of livestock projects. Unmatched premiums and significant scholarships have Texas families competing at the highest levels. To gain a competitive edge, a small percentage of families seek alternate “educational” services from breeders, fitters and non-owner feeding facilities. While some of these alternate sources of education do have a degree of livestock expertise, unfortunately, they may not be bound by ethical principles of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and lack the understanding of the primary goal of positive youth development. This is why Extension agents must spearhead the educational effort at the county level.
Unarguably, the livestock project has the potential to change lives and effectively prepare young people for future life experiences. The reality is, however; to ensure the 4-H member is ethically capitalizing on all that the project offers, Extension agents must invest time and energy in the 4-H livestock project at the county level. Project visits take time, precious time, however; the payoff is enormous . When livestock project families trust Extension agents they effectively open their minds to the life skill development foundation of livestock projects. They look to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service for relevant, high quality, and reliable information. Above all – they know we care!
This article was co-authored by Dr. Billy Zanolini, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist – Youth Livestock and Agriculture and Dr. Darrell Dromgoole, Associate Director – County Programs with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.