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Rebecca Mott and John Tummons, University of Missouri professors, researchers, livestock producers and parents, share their insights — including Mott’s research on youth livestock production — about handling disappointment and focusing on caring connections in the time of COVID-19.

“At a time when youth in agriculture are facing great uncertainty with their livestock projects due to the pandemic, it is important that they find support in their families and communities,” Mott said.

This is their open letter to the Missouri agriculture community.

Dear Friends in Agriculture,

We’ve all watched in disappointment as livestock shows around our state and country have been canceled due to COVID-19. For youth who show livestock, going to a show or fair and competing with their animal is a big part of their identity, and losing these opportunities is challenging to kids’ mental health. In a time where there are few banners, trophies, or buckles to be won, what can youth still gain from working with livestock? A wise farmer shared with me, “I’m raising kids, and using cows to do it.” It’s clear raising livestock teaches important life lessons; maybe this disruption is an opportunity for us as leaders to focus on the value of the process of livestock production in growing better human beings.

In the midst of these uncertain times, I’ve thought repeatedly about the research conducted in 2018 where I interviewed young livestock producers about what a lifetime of growing and showing animals means to them. This research suggests that young people feel there is so much more to being a livestock producer than showing livestock. For many youth, the meaning behind raising livestock is not focused on winning ribbons or even taking home a check. The young people involved in the study, who were 17 and 18 years old, focused on caring connections as they explained the meaning of livestock production.

1) Raising Livestock Builds Family Connections

Many young people involved in livestock projects come from families where showing has been the norm for generations. Look around the show barn and show ring. You’ll see brothers and sisters, moms and dads, cousins, grandmas and grandpas who were once raising and showing animals too. When the seniors in this study looked back, they remembered things like a grandpa enjoying sitting in his wheelchair and patting a hog on the snout or the sound of rain on the barn roof while sorting calves with dad and a favorite uncle. Their family memories were often made up of the “everyday” moments — those that may seem insignificant at the time but in hindsight are actually very meaningful after all.

What can we do? Find value in family time spent together washing, feeding, and gentling animals. 1) Find ways for youth to work side-by-side with their extended family, perhaps learning a new skill. 2) Ask older generations to share the history of the farm, their experiences, and lessons learned. 3) Dig out the old scrapbooks and tell stories. 4) Find ways for all family members to contribute together.

2) Raising Livestock Strengthens Community Connections

Young people in this study were highly connected to both their local communities and the agricultural community (which many of the young people in this study called their “agricultural family”). Numerous people, businesses, and organizations had helped support them and bridge them to social networks and more opportunities. When the seniors in this study talked about their communities, they told stories about a neighbor gifting a bottle calf to a small child to help them start their herd, or a feed store owner hiring a 16-year-old who had been coming into the store with his dad since he could walk. They were pushed forward by influential educators and volunteers they worked with through positive youth development organizations such as 4-H and FFA. These community connections helped to further connect them with other new people and events on the state or even national level.

What can we do? Encourage youth to deepen relationships with local communities. 1) Have youth send a thank-you note to someone who has supported their project. 2) Discuss the importance of livestock production to your community and its economy. 3) Ask youth how they can use their gifts to serve someone else in the community.

We as youth leaders and parents believe in the power of raising livestock to teach important life lessons. If the most important lessons are learned before the show starts, then we can still teach those lessons by finding value in the process.

3) Use the animal as a live learning laboratory

Beyond the research project, this could be an excellent time for a young person to experience hands-on lessons in nutrition, health, marketing, housing, communications, genetics, or even meat processing. Perhaps a family member or someone in the community will allow them to shadow them as they do their job, allow them to help with some of the tasks, or serve as a valuable resource and mentor.

What can we do? 1) Encourage youth to identify and set learning goals for an area of interest. 2) Identify and research a career in a specialized animal science area. 3) Encourage youth to experiment with various components of livestock production. What effect do various supplements have on animal performance? Can they research livestock handling best practices and build gates that will make moving livestock easier on the family farm? Can they design a social media page for their operation where they can market hogs they raise to local consumers? Can they do research to select AI sires and develop a breeding plan for their own cows?

I challenge us, as a community of agriculturalists, to think about how we can support our youth in agriculture at a higher level, focusing on the possibilities and opportunities instead of the problems. Yes, we are disappointed that some of our fairs, which give youth a chance to showcase their livestock, have been canceled. But there are so many other ways we can help young people learn and grow. How can we utilize caring family and community connections to help them have some unique experiences this year that they might not normally have?

Rebecca Mott, Ph.D.

John Tummons, Ph.D.

Rebecca Mott is an assistant extension professor in the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri. She also teaches in the Department of Agricultural Education and Leadership in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Mott and her family raise registered Polled Hereford cattle on their family farm in Clark, Missouri.

John Tummons is an associate teaching professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Agricultural Education and Leadership in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Tummons and his family raise registered Gelbvieh and crossbred cattle on their family farm in Columbia, Missouri.