“To make the best better,” the motto of 4-H youth development, goes all the way back to 1927. It’s a simple pledge of perpetual self-improvement, of taking successful, time-tested methods and materials and constantly finding ways to refine them, make them relevant to what youth need to succeed in the modern world. It’s the reason why 4-H has been around since the turn of the last century, and yet is still inspiring youth to success today. And it’s why, if you scratch the surface behind an old-school livestock judging contest at a county or state fair, you’ll find a cutting-edge learning lab at work.
4-H animal science projects are a traditional part of the 4-H experience, but in many ways they’re the most demanding and advanced educational programs available to youth anywhere. Youth are given responsibility for caring for an animal and keeping it at optimal health. They learn the science that makes it grow healthy, productive and valuable on the market. They develop their own feeding plans and budgets, which they track through meticulous records. They practice for hours to show their animal in its best light and learn to communicate easily with judges about what makes it a superior example of its breed. Finally, they put all their skills to the test in a supportive but competitive environment. If they succeed, they walk away with more than just a grade, but experience, confidence, and maybe even a scholarship or a little cash.
Now picture those same skills applied to running a veterinary practice, managing a business, conducting research, or serving on a board of directors or city council. That’s the 4-H educational model at work.
The 4-H model of learning-by-doing was on full display at the Florida State Fair last month during the Champion of Champions competition. Champion of Champions is the culmination of the Florida State Fair’s Champion Animals and Champion Youth program.
The program was developed in the late 1990s to enhance the educational element of youth livestock shows. At the time, the profit motives for auctioning prize-winning livestock had led to youth paying too much for competitive animals and missing the main point of relating their project experience to real-world agriculture. At a series of symposia on youth livestock ethics, UF/IFAS presented data from their steer futurity program, which improved the fairness of animal selection and added educational programming as a part of the competition. This became the model for the Champion of Champions. The program awards premiums, including scholarships and cash awards, for participants displaying skills and knowledge of animal science, as well as standards of excellence for animals.
Competing in Champion of Champions can be a years-long process. Healthy animals–steer, beef cattle, dairy cattle, goats, swine, sheep, rabbits, and poultry–are purchased and/or raised by youth prior to the fair. Youth work with 4-H agents, club leadership and volunteers in their local 4-H clubs, learning first-hand how to raise their animals, optimizing their weight gain and health. They keep scrupulous record books on their progress. And they study—a lot. “Skillathon” manuals developed by Saundra TenBroeck of the UF/IFAS Department of Animal Sciences are mini-courses in animal science, taking participants through everything they need to know about their species, from digestive anatomy and nutrition to feed efficiency and evaluating body condition. Participants also learn how to groom and show their animals and answer questions from judges.
At the end of the year, participants bring their animals to the fair where they earn points by showing their animals, participating in Skillathons, submitting record books and taking record-book skills tests. Points earned are converted to cash payments after the fair.
The top four senior exhibitors (14 years old or more) in each youth show go on to the Champion of Champions competition held on the last day of the fair. Each exhibitor competes in round-robin skillathon contests. These can be about any of the species in the show, so they have to be prepared to know about all of them. The day ends in a reception and awards banquet where the winners are announced–the 4-H equivalent of the Oscars.
A Legend-Dairy Success
Among this year’s big winners were two members from Hillsborough 4-H. Fourth-place winner Isabel Perdomo from San Antonio is a senior member of the Legend Dairy 4-H club. Second-place winner Austin Holcomb of Lithia entered as an FFA competitor, and he’s also a member of Hillsborough’s Farm Fresh Clovers 4-H Club. Isabel’s been a 9-year member of 4-H and a mentor for the junior members. Excellence in animal science runs in the Perdomo family—Isabel’s sister Melina won 4th place in intermediate showmanship and 1st place in goat judging.
Other State Fair winners from Legend Dairy 4-H included:
- Isabelle Muir – 2nd in junior showmanship
- Danielle Miller – 1st in dairy goat senior showmanship, best in show senior in open, best in show senior in youth, 2 best of breed, 1 grand champion, 2 reserve champions, 1 best udder in breed, open poultry geese received best of variety and best of breed
- Caleb Miller – 4th place junior showmanship, several 1st in class Nigerian dwarfs (See the story about Caleb’s life on the farm here.)
- Seth Miller – showmanship white ribbon, champion Saanen
- Ryan Craig – white ribbon for showmanship, turkey blue ribbon, best of breed and best of variety, chickens 3 blue ribbons, 1 red ribbon and 1 white ribbon, egg entries red ribbon, white ribbon and reserve 6 pack of green eggs
- Alyssa Behringer – reserve grand champion junior alpine and 6th in senior showmanship
- Shelby Lawrence – white ribbon showmanship goats, rabbits best of breed, best of variety, 2nd place and 1st place junior showmanship
It’s been a very successful year for Hillsborough’s Legend Dairy 4-H club, but it wasn’t the first. Hillsborough 4-H has flourished under the guidance of 4-H youth development agents Brandi Yancy and Charles Poliseno. But the real secret of the club’s success has been the passionate dedication of its club leaders, Joy Miller and Carolann Mullins, and its adult volunteers. It’s a great testament to the passion and dedication of 4-H youth members and adult volunteers.
The Legend Dairy 4-H club is only one among many representing over 1,600 youth who competed in the Champion Animals and Champion Youth program this year. I’m immensely proud of all the UF/IFAS Extension 4-H agents who mentored the youth, as well as the club leaders and volunteers whose hard work and dedication helped these youth become champions. Most of all, I’m proud of Florida 4-H’s youth members. The skills you’ve acquired through hard work and caring for you animals will serve you well when you become the leaders of tomorrow.