The Power of 4-H
As I scroll through my summer photos of 4-H kids working with their cows, I’m reminded of all the joy, work, and life lessons that 4-H uniquely offers. The kids may not even recognize it now, but you can see it all in the pictures.
When I ask the kids why they do 4-H and the dairy project, I overwhelmingly hear, “Because I want to work with a calf!” You can’t blame them. Especially here in suburban Chittenden County, opportunities to experience farms and farming are pretty rare. (And it’s why the Farm supports Shelburne Explorers 4-H by leasing its calves to members, and by leading the group.)
Each child gets to pick a calf to call their own, take care of it, train it, lead it around, travel to shows with it, and simply hang out with it.
Kids choose their calves in April. Taylor walks down the row of Brown Swiss calves and looks them over, reaching out her hand to greet them. She climbs in the pens and puts her arms around the calves, trying to decide which one she wants to spend the summer with.
Soon leases are signed and we get to work. Having a calf and getting to know it as your own is exciting and challenging. Each member creates goals for themselves for the project, fills out a record book and family tree for their calf, tracks their cow’s growth rate through the season, and learns what they are fed.
In weekly meetings at the dairy at Shelburne Farms, members learn how to halter, lead, and give their cows a bath. As group leaders, we support and help where needed, but with the motto of “learn by doing”, 4-Hers do almost all of it themselves.
Madeline picked out her very first calf this year and was beyond excited to just be with “White”. She would have been out to the barn every day if she could have been. She loved White so much. Madeline worked hard to earn White’s trust and friendship by brushing and talking to the calf to get her used to being handled. She taught White to walk on a halter and the two of them practiced often to prepare for the fair shows.
Working your calf is about a long-term commitment to something, with all the ups and downs. Sure, it’s fun to cuddle with your calf and lead her when she wants to cooperate, but trying to pull 300 pounds of pure stubborn can be really frustrating. Dealing with frustrations like that is an important part of the experience of working with an animal, and it’s what makes it rewarding and meaningful, for Madeline and all the kids.
5:30 am comes awfully early, but getting up at the crack of dawn is what you have to do to get your calf washed and fed to be ready for show day. You have to scrub the caked-on manure off of her legs while she fidgets about, and then you have to wait for her to dry so that you can begin the process of getting ready for the show ring.
Madeline and Taylor wouldn’t normally jump out of bed at that time, but there’s something about the responsibility they feel for their calves that pulls them out from under warm covers and gets them to the barn to start their long day of showing.
Having your calf and yourself looking tip top in the show ring is the goal. 4-Hers get their calves ready by fluffing their tails, making a perfect topline, shining their coats, and even applying a coat of hoof polish to their toes.
All of the learning and hard work since April comes to this: entering the ring and presenting your calf to a judge, competing against others who have done the same. It’s all nerves and excitement as my 4-Hers lead their calves around, watching the judge intently and making sure their animals look their best. Is she clean enough? Will she behave in the ring? Is her head high enough? Are her legs set right? Will I be able to answer the questions the judge asks of me?
In the end, it is nice to earn a blue ribbon, but having a calf in this 4-H project goes way beyond winning in the ring. To experience the power of being at the barn, being with your cow, and developing that bond of trust and even friendship, is what makes 4-H so special.
After all the tiring and demanding work of showing is over, 4-Hers just hang out with their calves in the show barn. They call it “cow-cuddling time,” and it’s far and away their favorite thing at the fairs. They just relax with happiness, contentment, and a new-found confidence springing from their accomplishments. The bonds between calves and kids that have been developing since spring is on full display.
Although our 4-H members at Shelburne Farms focus on cows, the topic doesn’t really matter. 4-H is about engaging young people in projects that they chose, based on goals that they create, and then letting them learn by doing.