Tennessee 4-H youth have much to gain from livestock competitions, such as a sense of responsibility, initiative and other skills that will last a lifetime.
For example, Brian and Samantha Easterly McLerran in Clay County can already see how 4-H livestock competitions are helping their children. Ella, 13, and Brie, 11, have completed swine, sheep and beef cattle projects. Members of the Clay County 4-H Club, the McLerran family has been extremely active in hog, sheep, goat and beef projects for decades. The girls’ younger brother, Cord, will soon participate in 4-H animal projects too. He may get his start with pigs, which is a common beginning project for many 4-Hers.
“We love seeing the older kids helping the younger kids with their hogs,” says Brian, a sixth-generation farmer.
Samantha, a physician, says Brie and Ella are already learning important life lessons.
“We turn them loose with a living animal. It’s their responsibility to care for that animal,” she says. “It helps them learn to set and achieve goals. And, as a mom, I also like them learning that you are going to fail sometimes but you come back knowing what you can do better and try again a little harder.”
Adult 4-H leaders are a big part of that process, keeping a healthy focus on character development.
“We realize that we’re raising kids and training kids. It’s not all about who takes home the awards,” Brian says.
That adult influence lasts after 4-H – something Brian knows personally. He praises recently retired Clay County University of Tennessee Extension Director Randall Kimes.
“Mr. Kimes was the reason I stayed in college,” Brian says. “After my first semester I was pretty disheartened with my grades. Mr. Kimes found out about my grades and looked me up over the holidays. He gave me the encouragement and the advice to make it in college.”
Competing Beyond the Show Ring
Skillathons test the 4-Hers in everything from identifying equipment to questions about proper nutrition and reading medication labels, notes John Goddard, Loudon County UT Extension agent. There are beef, sheep and swine skillathons. The top two 4-Hers from each contest form a six-person state team. Tennessee won the 2015 National 4-H Livestock Skillathon Contest.
Livestock judging contests give youth 20 minutes to evaluate a class of four animals: two classes each of beef cattle, goats, sheep and swine. Each contestant then gives a two- minute talk called oral reasons explaining his or her ranking of the animals.
“Evaluating the animal becomes a tool to get the youth speaking, learning how to make decisions and how to think quickly on your feet,” Goddard says. “We teach them that when you’re making major decisions in life, you’re probably going to need to know how to communicate – whether it’s in a job interview, a two-minute elevator speech for business, explaining something in a courtroom, even explaining to a girl’s father why you’re the guy to marry her,” he says.
Equine contests also develop life skills in a large number of Tennessee 4-Hers. More than 500 youth annually exhibit horses in regional and state horse shows and equestrian competitions.
Caring for and training a horse is a year-round commitment and develops the same life skills learned in beef, sheep, swine and goat projects. That’s something Kasey Hines, 16, of Franklin County, knows first-hand. She has competed in approximately 50 events during her eight years in 4-H and was chosen as the 2016 University of Tennessee homecoming rider.
“The weeks spent preparing for competitions have not only taught me about responsibility but also time management and big-picture thinking,” Hines says. “Every aspect of the 4-H program has instilled me with values and skills that can be utilized through my life.”
“These kids learn to understand responsibility,” says Claudia Baney, 4-H animal science specialist at UT. “They’re not sleeping late during the summer; they’re up every day caring for their livestock.”
Baney sees a clear change in youth who have participated in the 4-H animal programs.
“They have a strong work ethic, know to take the initiative and understand responsibility. That carries through wherever they go after 4-H,” she says.