Aside from food, one of Java’s favorite things is getting scratches behind her ears, which Cayce Sullivan, a 15-year-old 4-H’er in Gilchrist County, makes sure to do as part of her daily care routine.
Java, a Brown Swiss heifer, is just one link in a bigger chain – Florida’s 4-H Dairy Heifer Chain.
The program started in 2019 and works like this: a 4-H member receives a dairy calf, cares for it, trains it and shows it at two fairs. When the heifer is old enough, the 4-H youth works with a local veterinarian to see the animal through having a female calf of its own. That calf then goes to another 4-H member and another link is added to the chain. So far, 13 heifers have been placed since the program’s inception.
At only a year old, Java has already become well acclimated to Cayce’s farm, where she learns the correct stance, position and walk necessary for winning local and state dairy cattle competitions.
About three days a week Cayce works with Java to make sure her features are best displayed when it comes time to show her at fairs. In addition to training, Cayce makes sure Java is properly taken care of with regular baths, health checks and brushing.
“It has taught me so much responsibility, and not just with dairy cows but with my school life and my other animals,” said Cayce. “The program has taught me so much and has opened so many doors for me.”
This year will be the third year in a row that Cayce will participate in the 4-H Dairy Quiz Bowl, a contest that gives youth the opportunity to showcase their knowledge of the dairy industry, cattle breeds, cattle health and proper nutrition and care.
But being a part of the Dairy Heifer Chain is more than just training an animal and learning the science and responsibility behind it – it’s creating that emotional bond with an animal.
“My favorite part of taking care of Java is bonding with her,” said Cayce.
That bond also fosters cooperation and trust, especially when it comes to training and preparing for competitions and fairs.
But to Cayce, the real fun is trying to figure out each animal’s quirks and personality to help them become more comfortable on the farm so they feel like it’s their home. As time goes on, Cayce hopes to continue growing her herd.
In March, Cayce plans to show Java at The Suwannee River Fair and then again at the Florida 4-H Dairy Show.
“The Dairy Heifer Chain is a great opportunity for youth to learn responsibility, science and professionalism, and the program also helps youths learn about the agricultural industry and how to contribute to it,” said Chris Decubellis, animal sciences state specialized agent for Florida 4-H, the youth development program of UF/IFAS Extension.
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 five to 18 with the objective of developing youth 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.
To learn more about 4-H in Florida and how to participate in the Dairy Heifer Chain program, contact Chris Decubellis at firstname.lastname@example.org.