Guest Commentary | Life lessons learned in the barn

Guest Commentary | Life lessons learned in the barn


The Illinois State Fair kicked off Thursday evening in Springfield with the traditional Twilight Parade. However, days before politicians shook hands and community floats made their way past the grandstand, hundreds of 4-H and FFA members arrived with sheep, cattle, swine, goat and poultry projects to compete for blue ribbons and grand champion recognition.

The work to prepare for this one week began months before trucks and trailers filled with kids and livestock arrived in Springfield. These young people and their families have spent countless hours working with these animals, feeding and caring for them, and keeping them comfortable with clean bedding and cool fans. They learn how to work with their animals and know how to interact with each animal for their own and the animal's safety. For many, this is a family affair, and time spent in the barn is quality family time.

So what are these shows all about? Breeding stock, which will be kept to produce offspring, will compete against other similarly aged animals. Breeding stock — heifers (cattle), gilts (swine), ewes (sheep), does (goats) — are evaluated on skeletal confirmation and their ability to be long-lasting contributors in that young person's herd or flock. Market animals — wethers (sheep and goats), barrows (swine) and steers (cattle) — compete with animals that are of a similar weight and are evaluated on their meat animal characteristics.

Although the experience culminates in competition, exhibiting livestock isn't just about blue ribbons. There are life lessons learned in the barn. Responsibilities of caring for and preparing livestock for competition is hard work. It's early mornings and long days. It's wearing multiple layers of clothes to feed animals in January and rinsing animals in 100 degree heat to keep them comfortable. Livestock doesn't know it's the Fourth of July or that you stayed up late last night, and all of that hard work culminates in one trip through the showring.

Not all of these youths have families employed in full-time production agriculture. The experience of raising and showing livestock instills a true appreciation of agriculture in these young people.

I recently heard a cattle show judge note that many of the exhibitors at that particular show may not pursue careers in production agriculture, but they will understand where their food comes from, be able to explain that to others and likely value the role that agriculture plays in our national and global economy. Moreover, what employer wouldn't want to hire someone who works hard enough to wake up at 4 a.m. to get ready for a show?

Several exhibitors were successful in the showring this weekend. But many more may not have had the results they were hoping for. Similarly, we don't win every day in life. FFA and 4-H livestock exhibitors get a leg up in learning this valuable lesson. It is in these competitions that youths are learning how to be humble in success and celebrate for others in defeat. They evaluate the outcomes and set goals to improve for the future.Youth livestock exhibitors are also often balancing other responsibilities and activities. Similar to their peers, they are playing sports, practicing the arts, holding offices in clubs, working part-time jobs and still trying to be kids. They are learning time management as they balance caring for livestock and other commitments.

Junior beef, swine and sheep shows may be wrapping up in Springfield, but the work continues back at home. FFA and 4-H members are continuing to grow and learn, setting goals for next year, working hard to care for their animals and contributing to the future of agriculture.

Marla Todd, a Champaign County Farm Bureau member, showed Charolais cattle with her family as a youth and is a now a proud 4-H mom and leader. She is enjoying the beginning of her own sons' experiences showing livestock.