Agricultural education has long understood that significant learning opportunities exist outside the classroom. A livestock project carries the expectation that it serves as a microcosm of the larger industry.
“With vaccinations, veterinary and animal management practices, students learn to be exceptional observers of detail,” said Tom Maynard, Texas FFA Executive Director. “They begin to understand that diagnosing and addressing potential disease situations are elements of grooming and showmanship.”
Livestock shows help students keep current on species trends, and attending the shows provides insight into improvements being made with animals. Students learn how improvements meet industry standards.
During the preparation for livestock competition, students get involved in breed organizations. Not only are they leaders within their own FFA chapter, but they take on leadership roles on breeder associations at the junior level.
Kent Boggs, Oklahoma’s State FFA Executive Secretary, says that while there aren’t specific lesson plans for livestock showing, preparation does include animal science and animal husbandry content.
Smyrna High School’s campus has a livestock lab where students take care of their show animals. “Weather permitting, we go through the entire process including washing, clipping and fitting as part of classroom lessons,” said agriculture teacher Keith Shane.
Shane tries to help students understand the pedigree of their animal, sire and dam, as well as focusing on feed rations, what is being fed and why, and what amounts the animals need. When the veterinarian is on campus, students are included whenever possible so that they can hear the vet’s explanation of procedures and care.
SAEs and livestock shows
“The beauty of the SAE circle is that a livestock project really makes it a learning experience,” Boggs stated. “One third of Oklahoma students will have at least one livestock project over the course of their high school career.”
Time spent on a livestock SAE includes the work of students, parents and the agriculture teacher. The teacher makes personal visits – a huge part of the process. He meets with parents and the student to discuss everything from feed rations to animal health and record keeping, as well as financial transactions that take place with a livestock show project.
“At the same time, we have to be careful with the livestock show piece,” Maynard cautions. “In a lot of the country, you cannot build an SAE around the livestock show. There are lots of disadvantaged students that don’t have the resources to play the game. When we put a premium on that – making shows the gold standard – we’ve put a disincentive on students that cannot compete this way.”
Maynard said that agricultural education programs need to value other SAE projects equally with livestock shows. “If we are going to diversify our FFA/agricultural education population, we are going to have to manage this.” This is why agricultural education has seen an increase in the number of small animal and specialty animal SAEs. Students are able to experience the same lessons of ownership, attention to detail, record keeping, selection and nutrition utilizing “livestock” that is less costly and can often result in a higher return than expensive livestock show animals. They are also able to experience the joys and the discomforts of an agricultural life.
“Through livestock projects, students learn that sometimes, in spite of their best efforts, things don’t always turn out well,” Shane explained. “With livestock it is no different than crop production. Livestock can be affected by predators or disease – there are often life lessons occurring in livestock projects. You can work hard and things don’t work out for you.”
There are lots of intangibles gained from livestock shows: critical thinking, problem solving and acute observation skills. “Students look back on their experience with a sense of accomplishment,” Shane said. “Every year at the Delaware state fair, former students find me to see what animals we are showing and to reminisce about their own animals.” A former agriculture teacher, now on national FFA staff, reported her proudest moment was receiving a Christmas card from a former student with a picture of her two-year-old son. In the card, the woman wrote that she was a better mother because of the lessons she learned through her livestock project in high school. It doesn’t get much better than that.