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For an early introduction to the agricultural industry, you would have to be very carefully to beat participating in 4-H and competing at the annual Kentucky State Fair.
After all, developing animals and products is a consistent and educational practice in itself. When you add doing so competitively – at fairs and shows – the “hobby” can become time-consuming and require an investment of money as well.
Hundreds of Shelby Countians – many of them children and teenagers – flock to the state fair with all sorts of animals, everything from horses, to cows, to goats and sheep, to chickens, to rabbits and even pigeons. And the prospect of attending the fair for several days, showing and caring for their animals and transporting everyone and everything is not simple or cheap.
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Office Agriculture Agent Corinne Belton is well placed to see how the system works. In addition to her professional involvement, she is the parent of one active 4-H member and state fair competitor, with a second ready to enter the 4–H “lifestyle” next year.
Her daughter, Jaycie Heath, a 15-year-old sophomore, has reached the stage when she can assume much of the responsibility herself for handling her 4-H responsibilities and preparation for the fair. When her son, Caden Kephart starts up, he will need help from his family – especially in meeting the financial requirements.
But the goal, Belton said, is to see the participating youth progress towards self-sufficiency.
“Hopefully by the time they get to college they have some money and that will help pay for books and tuition,” Belton said.
Typically, students enter the 4-H program at the age of 9.
“If you choose to do a market animal project, you’re going to sell every year,” Belton said. “If you choose a breeding animal project, then hopefully you are building your herd over time so eventually you can stop buying females and raise your own – whether it’s sheep or pigs or whatever.”
Students not only learn to care for their animals on a daily basis but also how to manage the associated financial requirements, as they sell their livestock and but new ones.
Jaycie shows four species of animals – meat goats, market lambs, market hogs and heifers. It takes her most of the year to prepare her livestock for showing during the summer months.
“We had the heifer since last November,” Belton said. “Pretty much everything else – lambs, hogs and goats – you get in the springtime, at the end of March or the beginning of April. She has to take care of them all summer.”
Belton notes that there are several ways that the financial aspects of participating in the 4-H projects can be handled, and the situation is different for every family, especially as children grow older and progress into Future Farmers of America.
“I know a lot of kids who have gone through FFA.…They have youth loans that are low-interest,” Belton said. “A lot of kids have gone through that just to learn the process of borrowing money and paying it back and the economic side of it. That also helps them start building their credit at a young age.
“They are [one-]year loans. You buy your calf and feed with it, and then when you sell the calf and sell it at the end, you pay the loan back and hopefully have a little left over for when it’s time to buy again next year.
“Again through FFA, if they are using it as a SAE [Supervised Agricultural Experience] project, then they’re keeping their own records, they have to show where the money came from; whether it was a gift, or if they earned it from their lawn mowing business. So there are different ways of doing it.”
And the list of expenses associated with caring for an animal is a long one.
After initially purchasing the animal, students have to provide feed and hay. They have overheads, such as electricity and water to the barn, to consider. Most shows have an entry fee, and there is also transportation costs to and from the show, the daily charge for getting in and out of the fairgrounds and possibly accommodations and food, if the competition is away from home a home area.
For instance, Belton and Jaycie went to Iowa for a week this year to participate in the Junior National competition for shorthorn cattle.
Even when the animal is healthy, there are vet bills – Jaycie’s heifer needed breeding, and also sometimes health papers are required for traveling. If students are raising their own livestock, they must pay to get them registered to prove the animals are purebreds.
Jaycie, for instance, pays an annual membership fee to the shorthorn association to keep the records for her cattle up-to-date.
“It’s a learning experience for the kids,” Belton said. “The responsibility that it takes and the dedication, especially with cattle….It’s a long time, even if you are just buying them to show every year, even if it’s just a steer. You still would be buying that steer in the fall of the year prior to, so it’s still a ten-, eleven-, twelve-month project. And as soon as you get rid of one, you start preparing for the next year.
“So it is a big investment in time, but fortunately Jaycie is fifteen now, so she can do a lot on her own. She gives her heifer a bath every day and works her lambs. Then there is school and sports and other activities. Kids today do all sorts of things. They are always busy.
“The benefits that the kids get out of it, and as a family, far outweigh the costs.”
For the record, the 2013 Kentucky State Fair proved to be a successful year for Jaycie and her animals. Her four goats provided her with a Grand Champion Commercial Doe, a class winner that was a reserve division champion in the “Kentucky Proud” competition, and a second and a third.
Of her four lambs, she had a champion Southdale Market Lamb and also third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes.
And her heifer, which she chose and bought without any parental assistance, was reserve champion in the open class.
Only her pigs failed to bring home the bacon.