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Life Skills Wheel

Life Skills Wheel developed by Iowa State University

There may be a thunderstorm. It may be below freezing. Your whole family may have caught the flu or you may have been invited to a party. However, you are a livestock kid and those animals need to be fed. Your plans for the beach can change in an instant if your ewe goes into labor. You may be up all night delivering lambs yourself and have to go to school the next day. The Florida State Fair is coming up fast and those entry forms need to be signed and sent in, the record book must be completed and your speech must be recorded on video. You must pay for the health certificate and you still have to buy feed, supplements and hay for the month. You have a school project that has to be submitted Monday morning, but there is a jackpot show the over the weekend that pays excellent premiums. The scenarios go on and on. Whether a rat snake slithered into the chicken coop and you lost the chicks you just hatched, your market swine destroyed the gate to its pen, or your horse has colic, you must deal with it.  And to deal with it, you use life skills.

When I became a 4-H Extension Agent over ten years ago, I knew nothing about livestock – other than having a few pet rabbits and guinea pigs growing up. The first time a Junior 4-H’er described how she had just artificially inseminated her heifer and that she had researched the bull and ordered the semen, I admit that I blushed. At the time, I did not know what AI was or a heifer was, nor did I know that semen could be ordered, comes in colors, and that the cost depends upon the bull. Over the years, the youth have told me how they have banded their male baby goats, given subcutaneous shots to their animals, and dehorned their cattle. They throw terms around like pullet, barrow, gilt, condition, and depth of rib – the livestock world has its own language and culture.

Cloverbuds watch their Senior heroes showing animals in the ring and they memorize how they do it so they can do it too. The older youth drive over to the homes of the younger 4-H’ers and spend hours coaching them on how to keep eye contact with the judge, tap the spine to make a lamb straighten its back, how to brace, and how to use tools to always keep that happy pig in front of the judge. It does not seem to matter if a youth is showing cavy, rabbits, poultry, sheep, goats, swine, cattle, or horses – it is a serious business. After watching the youth for a decade, I have come to know that the showmanship award is probably the most coveted, after Grand and Reserve, that is. Showmanship awards depend upon the youth’s own ability and skill, not the animal’s conformation.

So why do 4-H families do this? Most families can never make back what they put into livestock projects: the feed bills, the vet bills, medicine, clippers and saddles, fencing, gas, hotels, entry fees, show clothes, etc. Four-H families have a difficult time going on vacation because someone has to care for the farm! Animals die from prolapse and all manner of diseases, they get attacked by wild animals, and market animals have to go to auction. Families encourage their children to take on livestock projects because of what their kids get out of them. Ribbons and trophies are great but the real prize is the attainment of valuable life skills.

Livestock projects touch on every Essential Element: Belonging, Mastery, Independence and Generosity. The Life Skills Wheel focuses on the areas of Relating, Caring, Giving, Working, Living, Being, Managing and Thinking, with specific skills like Cooperation, Self-Discipline, Problem-Solving and Teamwork. Volunteers and parents know this – so while the youth are having fun and working through the struggles of animal husbandry, they are actually developing the ability to speak in public, keep records, be safe in the barn, show concern for others, plan and set goals. These are all marketable skills essential in the workplace and in the homes they will have some day. Youth in livestock projects become self-confident. They know they can tackle tough issues, overcome heart-breaking loss, and earn some money in the process.

Most 4-H’ers will not become farmers, but some of them will. Some may become large animal veterinarians, AI technicians, geneticists, feed sales representatives, nutritionists and farriers. Most will leave their show ring days behind them and pursue careers completely unrelated to livestock. But they will take the skills they acquired in 4-H and use them throughout their lives. Some folks try to get away from 4-H being “Sows, Cows and Plows.” Four-H truly is much more, but the backbone and heart will always be those wonderful livestock kids.



  1. All so true! 4-H has provided my children with a foundation in managing, finance, marketing and other critical “life skills”. It has given them self-confidence, self-esteem, critical thinking skills all the while fostering a heart of giving through community service projects and counseling opportunities. It has given them a voice in public speaking contests and confidence while running for school/club governing offices. Livestock, “backbone and heart” but so so much more.