By Hannah Dah
Dust swirls around Addison’s square-toed boots as she leads a calf the color of chocolate syrup out of the stall and into her backyard. Despite being three times her size, the animal follows patiently behind Addison like a dog on a leash.
Clover, named for the symbol of 4-H, is obedient to Addison’s firm commands, and neither he nor Addison breaks a sweat when an errant sheep attempts to butt its way in between the steer’s hind legs.
Clover is the second calf Addison Burright has raised as part of Cochise County’s 4-H program. Every morning for the last three months, Addison has fed and watered Clover, broke him to lead in a pink and blue halter, and kept a detailed daily record book of feed and grooming.
Both she and her twin brother, Cooper, are preparing to show their steers, sheep and chickens at the Cochise County Fair in a couple weeks.
Head, heart, hands and health
4-H is a national non-profit organization focused on providing its members with real-life agricultural experience. Nearly 6 million youths across the United States participate in the program, and membership has remained stable over the last five years. Out of the total members, about half (2.6 million) live in rural communities.
In places such as Cochise County, where agricultural roots run deep and strong, buying and raising a beef steer or showing an animal in the county fair are the most common projects. 4-H is overseen by the Cooperative Extension branch of the land-grant universities in each state.
In Arizona, the University of Arizona offers 4-H to all 15 counties, in addition to Indian reservations and military bases. By joining forces with the Cooperative Extension unit, 4-H has been assisting the university since 1902 in achieving its goal of delivering practical knowledge about science and agriculture to the public.
In the traditional model for 4-H livestock projects, the participant purchases an animal and closely monitors its feed, exercise, and weight gain for about 100 days. When the county fair arrives, participants show their animals to a panel of judges, where they are scored on qualities such as musculature and temperament.
Participants have the option of raising a market steer or breeding heifer. Steers are auctioned off after the fair, with the largest animals bringing in the most money.
Heifers are kept for breeding, so by the following year, participants have begun to develop their own herds. Both projects can be lucrative for the participants if the community has a large number of generous 4-H supporters at the auction.
Building tomorrow’s farmers
The cost of purchasing and feeding a 400-pound calf at $2.00 a pound is still enough to break any 11-year-old’s piggy bank. The amount of feed a calf needs to gain another 300 pounds before fair can cost just as much as the calf itself.
For many families living in small rural communities, the cost overshadows the benefits.
That’s where Riverview Dairy’s Beef Builder program comes in. Riverview is based out of Minnesota, but currently milks up to 7,000 cows a day at its Willcox dairy.
Last year, Riverview began an initiative called the Beef Builder program, which leases steers and heifers to youth in Cochise County who want to participate in 4-H.
“The Beef Builder program is meant to be for kids who maybe can’t afford doing the beef project, or the 10-year-olds that want to try 4-H, but their parents are not excited about them being around a 1,200-pound steer,” said Moiria White, the Beef Builder program leader and head of public outreach at Riverview.
The Beef Builder program expands the reach of 4-H to those families who might not have otherwise been able to participate.
Instead of purchasing their own calf for $800 at the sale, participants pay $100 to their 4-H chapter and then head to the dairy to pick out their animal, White said. The $100 fee goes towards purchasing supplies and hay, and Riverview doesn’t see a profit on the venture.
At the end of the fair, the youth have the option of buying their animal at a steep discount.
“Riverview sells the calf back to the kids for the price it would’ve been when they picked it out,” White said. “So essentially they’re getting a calf that’s been fed another 100 days at the cost of a 90-day-old calf.”
Last year, two participants decided to purchase their Beef Builder calves; this year, they’ll show those steers in the carcass class and make a profit off of the meat at the auction.
“That’s the idea of the program,” White said. “Kids can first see if they like it, and then they can buy their calf for half of what they’d pay at the sale.”
Making a difference
Public speaking and leadership are just two of the skills Eric Thoutt learned from his 4-H experience as a youth in Colorado. Now, as the 4-H program coordinator for Cochise County, Thoutt accompanies White on her visits to the homes of Beef Builder participants and shares his experience.
“We didn’t have all this fancy stuff when I was a kid,” Thoutt says as Cooper Burright shows off a pen built specially for transporting his sheep, Shelton, to the fair.
The program has changed a lot in the last decade, though the mission of “learning by doing” remains the same. 4-H recently added new programs in robotics, computer science, and other STEM-related areas, Thoutt said.
“This is where tomorrow’s careers are,” Thoutt continued. “As we become more of an urbanized society, not everyone can raise a pig or a sheep. The addition of these tech opportunities allows us to get more youth involved in 4-H.”
Learning by doing
The Burright twins wake up before sunrise each morning to feed their lambs, goats, chickens, pigs and steers. As the fair approaches, they must also spend extra time brushing and conditioning their animals’ coats each day.
In a society where the average youth spends 5 hours a day staring at a screen, the development of practical life skills such as time management, responsibility — and good old-fashioned hard work — is becoming a rarity.
When Makenzi Lawson gets home from school, she heads outside to the corrals to spend time with her 4-H heifer, Miss Priss.
“My favorite part is hosing off Miss Priss and brushing her down every day after school,” said Lawson, a seventh-grader.
Lawson is a returning member of the Beef Builders program. Her heifer from last year’s program, Minnie, roams free in the backyard of her family’s small farm in Willcox.
Life after 4-H
4-H focuses on preparing its members for both the workforce and higher education.
“Youth can attend national conferences where they will develop marketable skills for the workforce, such as learning to submit a resume and attending a job interview,” Thoutt said.
For those wanting to attend college, the Arizona 4-H Youth Foundation also offers scholarships to 4-H members.
Over the last 10 years, 4-H membership in Cochise County has remained relatively stable, with an average of 400 participants per year.
Riverview’s Beef Builder program currently makes up a very small part of that number. Last year, there were nine participants, White said. This year, there are only five.
However, White is more focused on the impact the program has on individuals.
“We believe in educating young people, we believe in the power of 4-H and FFA,” White said. “This is one way we could help in the community and help these kids. Hopefully we get them excited about agriculture.”
The influence of 4-H has already begun to shape the lives of the Cochise County Beef Builder members. Lawson and the Burright twins both plan to do 4-H next year. But more than that, the youths are beginning to think about their future careers.
“My favorite part of 4-H is working with the animals,” Addison said. “I’m going to be an animal doctor when I grow up, so this is a good experience for me.”
One day, Addison may use the skills she’s learned in 4-H to save an animal’s life. But for now, she’s content keeping vigil over the baby birds nested above the ceiling fan in her barn.
Hannah Dahl is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.