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Youth learn responsibility, science and more in 4-H Dairy Heifer Chain program

A Holstein calf

A Holstein calf. UF/IFAS photo by Camila Guillen.

This fall, one hardworking young person will continue a Florida 4-H tradition: The Dairy Heifer Chain.

The program, which began in 2019, works like this: A 4-H member receives a dairy calf, cares for it, trains it and shows it at the state fair. When that animal is old enough to have a calf of its own, it is bred and gives birth to another animal. That animal then goes to another 4-H’er — another “link” in the chain — and the process starts over again.

Heifers are female cattle that have not had their first calf; dairy cattle are cattle breeds developed for milk production.

“Like any animal project, youth learn a tremendous amount of responsibility and establish a work ethic, as a living creature is counting on them daily for their care,” said Chris DeCubellis, animal sciences state specialized agent for Florida 4-H, the youth development program of UF/IFAS Extension.

“They also learn decision making skills, record keeping skills and gain confidence as they enjoy progress and success with their project animal,” DeCubellis said. “Of course, they also learn skills related to their project, and we hope learn about potential careers in their project area.”

In that time, the program helps participants gain skills in science, problem solving and communication, all critical to workforce development, DeCubellis said.

In addition to caring for the animal day to day, youth work with a local veterinarian and their county’s 4-H Extension agent to make sure their animal gets routine medical care. Participants also train their animal to show at the state fair, teaching it to be led around the ring and stop on cue for judging. At the fair, youth must be prepared to talk to the public about their animal and share their knowledge.

A calf poking its head out of a pen with its tongue out

A Jersey calf. UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

The program is made possible by the Florida dairies that donate calves. This year’s calves include a Jersey heifer from Irish Oaks Farms and a Holstein from North Florida Holsteins.  Family Tree enterprises has donated Brown Swiss heifers in the past.

Since 2019, five youth have participated in the Dairy Heifer Chain program. The program is open to youth ages eight to 13.

“The idea is longevity with this program to help a youth establish their own herd, so we focus on younger youth who we hope will be in the program for a long time,” DeCubellis said.

Youth must apply by August 1 to be considered.

4-H is the youth development program of the land-grant university system and Cooperative Extension System. The program provides hands-on educational programs and experiences for youth ages 5 to 18 with the objective of developing them as individuals, and as responsible and productive citizens. In Florida, 4-H is administered by University of Florida/IFAS Extension and Florida A&M University, and serves approximately 200,000 youth annually. Learn more at florida4h.org.