Livestock Skill-a-Thon Requires Ag Know-How

8/31/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

WOODSTOCK, Va. — With their pencils out and thinking caps on, contestants in the Shenandoah County Fair’s 4-H/FFA Livestock Skill-a-Thon gathered around a series of tables in the show barn for what must have been one of the quietest livestock events in history. Voices did not rise above whisper level, failing to mask even the shuffling of papers over at the judges’ table, and for good reason: The event, according to organizer Sherry Heishman, requires serious concentration.

“They really have to think outside the box,” said Heishman, an agriculture teacher at Central High School in Woodstock.

Now in its third year at the county fair, the skill-a-thon tested competitors’ knowledge on a wide range of livestock production topics, from animal evaluation and meats judging, to feed and equipment identification. Contestants were also confronted with several scenarios and asked to make decisions based on various goals.

The breeding scenario, for example, put participants in charge of a 100-head commercial Angus beef operation, with average weaning weights at 510 pounds, and in need of a new bull, chosen from four options (two Herefords and two Simmentals). “Expected progeny difference” (EPD) numbers for each bull were provided, as were details about the feeding program and several herd improvement goals, including increasing the weaning weight and producing high-quality replacement heifers.

Then came the questions: Which Simmental bull has the most balanced set of EPDs? Which Hereford bull should sire the calves with higher USDA Quality Grade carcasses?

According to Heishman, success in the competition requires a well-rounded understanding of production agriculture. One reason she launched the contest was to encourage students to develop better understandings of why they do the things they do when they’re raising a livestock project for the county fair. Students, she said, sometimes go through the motions of what they’ve been taught to do but don’t understand why they’re doing these things, and therefore, have limited ability to fix problems.

Suppose someone is feeding a calf, but the calf isn’t gaining weight like it should, Heishman said. Troubleshooting that problem is going to require a solid understanding of animal nutrition, an ability to evaluate feed labels and familiarity with reasons and remedies for weight-gain problems. Developing those skills lies at the core of this event, Heishman added.

The 25 contestants were divided into three divisions: junior (ages 9 to 13), senior (ages 14 to 19) and “seasoned” for everyone older than 19. With $10 gift-certificate prizes offered to first-, second- and third-place finishers (and ice cream for all), the stakes were relatively low. Nevertheless, Heishman said, everyone “takes it really seriously.”

Pausing near the hay evaluation station, senior division competitor John-Robert Helsley remarked that the event wasn’t terribly challenging, particularly since he’s been doing this sort of thing for several years. Helsley said he won a similar junior stockman’s contest at the state fair several years previously.

After turning in his answer sheet to the judges, seasoned division entrant Travis Shipp also said the questions were relatively straightforward for someone like him, with experience raising livestock. While the skill-a-thon was primarily just a fun way to pass some time on Sunday afternoon at the fair, he said some aspects, like the breeding scenario, have real-world application. It’s just good practice, Shipp added, to be confronted with certain goals and choices — hypothetical ones, in this case — and to practice making decisions that can mean the difference between successes and struggles on the farm.

As he spoke, a library atmosphere still reigned in the barn, where goats bleating somewhere in the distance and the steady hum of traffic on Interstate 81 provided a soundtrack to intense Livestock Skill-a-Thon concentration.

Here are the results:

Junior Division

1. Tiffany Heishman, 2. Jacob French, 3. Jake Coffey

Senior Division

1. Garrett Coffey, 2. John-Robert Helsley, 3. Addie Guthrie

Seasoned Division

1. Brent Eaton, 2. David Gochenour, 3. Daryl Bowman

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