Thursday, September 25, 2008

Linking Livestock and Kids

I'm spoke last weekend at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy conference in Kalamazoo, on the topic of engaging kids in livestock through 4-H.

Of course, 4-H has been putting kids and livestock together for the last 100 years. 4-H, and its parent organization Cooperative Extension, were formed at the turn of the last century to fill a technology gap. The nation's land grant universities were churning out research that had the potential to substantially improve farming practices, but the nation's farmers. set in their ways, were slow to take advantage of the new research. 4-H was formed to train the youngsters in more scientific farming methods in hopes that they would grow into better farmers. Soon the opportunity to meet others, demonstrate their skills, compete for fame at fairs, and sell their livestock for cold hard cash made 4-H the community organization of choice for farm kids across the nation.

In the past few generations the farm population has dwindled, but 4-H is still involving kids in livestock projects. It takes a little more imagination and flexibility to do livestock projects with kids who are city dwellers or suburbanites, but the principles remain the same.

The best projects take an established curriculum and tweak it to suit the situation. Many resources are available at the national 4-H websites:

National 4-H Council

National Directory of 4-H Materials

4-H Online Community:

Every county or regional fair has its own rules, expectations and record books. Here are some samples:

A Goat Project Book for the Cloverbud (age 5-9) member. The focus is on learning about the animal. I like the questions where the child is asked about their goat's diet and digestive system:
My goat is a ruminant. Unlike me, she chews her cud.
_____ I have watched my goat chew her cud.
_____ I have seen a cud.

Unlike me, she has four parts to her stomach. One of these sections is the rumen where food is fermented by tiny bugs or micro-organisms.
_____ I have smelled my goat’s breath to see how these bugs produce stinky gases when they are digesting her food.

Roughage is food that is high in fiber.
_____I have scraped grass with a serrated plastic knife to find the fiber in the grass.
A roughage I feed my goat is:
My goat started to eat this when he/she was _____ weeks old.

Record keeping is just one part of the 4-H livestock education. Most kids who show their animals at the fair compete in the showmanship ring. To excel at showmanship, you must be thoroughly knowledgeable and practiced with your animal and your animal must be thoroughly comfortable with you. 4-Hers must work with their animals, exercise them, handle them, brush them, wash them, hang out with them. You can't just toss them some food and water and go on your way. This Rabbit Showmanship Guide gives a good example of what is involved.

The livestock auction is a big part of our local fair. The profit from a successful pig or steer project is an important source of income for the older kids, but there are sales in the goat, rabbit, and chicken barns as well. This year the goat clubs cooked up some goat dishes and offered samples at the livestock auction to raise interest in their meat goats. One of the buyers at our auction is the Fresh Food Partnership representing local food pantries; people who want to support both 4-H and the food programs donate to this program, and some money for the program is raised by 4-H clubs.

At the ALBC conference, there was a lot of frustration with the 4-H fair system. Many of the rare and endangered breeds of livestock were developed before the era of cheap corn feed; they grow well on pasture and forage, but their mature size may be smaller and it takes longer for them to reach maturity.

Fair rules often specify the dates when the 4-Her takes possession of the animal and a minimum weight to show an animal at fair. The heirloom breeds don't grow fast enough to qualify. A 4-H leader from New Jersey wanted to get his kids involved in the ALBC mission by letting them try some Tamworth pigs, but he wasn't sure if they could make the weight minimum. A 4-H leader from Indiana was just plain frustrated with the fair schedule -- their county fairs were held in July to accommodate the State Fair schedule.

I ended up defending 4-H. 4-H was teaching kids how to better raise livestock 100 years ago. 4-H kept up with the tradition of livestock and kids through the years when the family farms were disappearing and the art of working with animals seemed quaint and anachronistic. If the 4-H fair system seems set in its ways, that's because there's a lot of momentum. It's not uncommon for 4-H volunteers to have 10 or 20 or even 30 years invested, or for a family to volunteer over two or three generations. If it is hard to change the direction of the program, that's because 4-H has a heck of a lot of momentum.

At the same time, 4-H has been under siege as state and federal budgets become strapped and funding is cut or eliminated. Talking to people from across the US, I felt lucky that in Michigan and in Leelanau, that when we fought the budget battles we were largely successful. Still, it is hard to be forward thinking when we spend so much time in "Save 4-H" mode.

I challenged the audience to volunteer on some level, whether the fair process was immediately accessible to their breed or not. Dependable adults who know how to work with animals are needed for all sorts of jobs. Meet with the fair board to explain the conformation of your breed and how it's supposed to be shown. In Leelanau, there is a network of Scottish Highland Cattle owners; they were able to negotiate around a dehorning requirement and show their animals with their horn tips covered.

A club could also be primarily engaged in working with rare breeds, but raise a few standard breed animals to take to the fair. I appreciate my older breeds so much more after raising a few Cornish Cross "meat blobs".

Beyond the fair, sometimes instead of the fair, there are many ways to get kids and livestock together. Once kids become knowledgeable about their animals and secure in their skills they are eager to talk others about their animals, and are great ambassadors for their breeds. Here are some ways that 4-H kids in my county are teaching about their animals and helping to re-integrate livestock into the community.
  • We usually have 3 or 4 clubs that join forces to stage a petting zoo at the horticultural station during the National Cherry Festival, and again at the Horses by the Bay horse show.
  • We have a rabbit group that volunteers at the Tractor Supply Store every spring, bringing rabbits to sell but also giving demonstrations on all aspects of rabbit care and answering individual questions.
  • Family Llama Fair: Our local llama clubs cooperate to put on a fair for the llama loving public and other llama owners. It is a chance for 4-H kids to practice their skills, tell the public about their animals and learn from the invited speakers. This idea could easily be replicated by a breed association or even cross-species group of rare-breed aficionados. In our county, we do both a spring 4-H Expo and a July 4-H Livestock Achievement Day in addition to Fair. (The leader from Indiana who was so frustrated with her July fair schedule started thinking out loud about a "Heritage Livestock Fair", in late fall. )
  • Horseless Horse: learning about horses without actually owning a horse, or before owning a horse. This curriculum is a basic horse curriculum and would serve as a nice intro for draft horses as well.
  • Day camp for kids who want serious training, or as an introductory experience. One of our most successful horse groups never goes to fair. They can't see the logic of taking their animals off of pasture to spend a full week in a hot noisy stall at fair. They do a week long day camp to provide young kids with a first horse experience. The club members organize the event, limiting it to one camper per kids with two club members assisting each camper. I could see a similar camp-style training for kids who were already doing livestock projects but wanted more experience in draft horses or sheep shearing or butchering.
  • Michigan State Proud Equestrians Volunteers assist disabled riders. We had 4-H kids and leaders volunteering in this program for years.
  • Many kids are rearing livestock in backyards in residential areas, as in this headline: Suburban Kids Sell Their Livestock at Fair Auction. About 15 years ago we got a call from the 4-H office alerting us to a meeting of our local planning commission; they were contemplating an ordinance that would outlaw backyard livestock in our neighborhood. The 4-H families turned out in force and the idea was dropped.
  • Raise a pig for Rotary. Our local Rotary club approached 4-H a few years a go with an offer centered around their annual pig roast. The Rotary members offered to interview 4-H members, select one or two, and then have those kids raise an extra animal specifically for the fall pig roast. Local restaurants, especially the upscale restaurants that are selling a story along with the food, could be another place for kids to market their projects. Heritage turkeys? Christmas geese?
  • While not strictly a 4-H project, our local spring tradition of hatching eggs in the preschool and kindergarten classrooms could be a nice service project for a poultry group. The process of hatching eggs in an incubator, counting down the days, candling the eggs, letting the chicks work their way our of their shells, and then learning to gently feed, water, and handle the young chicks reinforces many parts of the kindergarten curriculum. A 4-H group could provide eggs, equipment, and mentoring to a classroom hatching project.
  • Our 4-H groups often choose, as a service project, to visit nursing homes with their animals. Small animals like dogs and rabbits are an obvious choice; larger animals like lambs or llamas are more unexpected but also appreciated. I'll confess that I've always thought about nursing home visits as sort of a knee-jerk response to the question of "What sort of service project shall we do?" One of the people at the ALBC talk pointed me to the Delta Society's research on the measurable benefits of including animals in the day to day lives of the elderly.
  • Arizona State University Hunkapi Program. I saved this example for last, as it has become, for me, somewhat of a muse on the meaning of the efforts to pair livestock and kids:
Hunkapi was founded as a research program in 1996. When compared to other sports, the research showed that horseback riding was the most positive intervention for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism. The positive results prompted the launching of the community outreach program in 1999. Hunkapi believes that interacting with horses can serve as a non-drug intervention alternative.
and, from ASU's research magazine:
Animals have long been touted for their therapeutic benefits. Horses are especially effective. Crews says that horses are generally able to interpret a person’s emotions and will mirror those emotions. For example, if a participant is upset and tense, then the horse will be tense and upset. But when the child is comfortable and confident, the horse will relax and follow the child’s lead.

Like all good relationships, the bond between a horse and child must be based on mutual respect. Horses can be loyal, obedient, and good listeners. But their respect must first be earned.

Horses are immense animals. They can be intimidating. They also can be frustrating because they force the child to communicate congruently with words and body language. Hunkapi specifically uses these qualities, challenges, and opportunities to encourage change and growth in each child....

.....For Crews, these positive results come with the hope that interventions such as equine therapy may some day reduce or perhaps even replace medication for these children.

“Medication often simply allows these kids to sit in the classroom at school, to just be there. It doesn’t help them excel. They might be ‘C’ students, when really they could be ‘A’ students,” she says. “The physical interventions are meant to help them actually exceed to their ability and, maybe in some cases, to reduce or eliminate medication.”
Humans evolved alongside animals for countless generations; yet in the last two or three generations we have contrived to live lives in isolation from our animals. Somehow, we are losing much more than eggs, milk, and meat when we leave animals out of our lives, and out of our children's lives. The ALBC's work centers around forgotten breeds of livestock, but I found myself wondering if "made to work with livestock" might be a description of a forgotten breed of kid, one that we might soon wish we had nourished.

No comments: