For decades, countless North Carolina 4-H’ers have found livestock shows and horse judging contests to be highlights of their year – times to gather with friends, make new ones and put months of learning to the test.
This spring was no different – no different, that is, except for the presence of a pandemic.
Stay-at-home guidelines led to cancelled get-togethers here in North Carolina and well beyond. But the North Carolina 4-H livestock shows and horse judging contests went on, thanks to computer programs and Internet technology, mixed in with some persistence and creativity on the part of 4-H’ers and the parents, leaders and extension professionals who support them.
We wanted them … to still reap the benefits of their hard work and to have something to work toward … during this time of uncertainty.
The North Carolina events drew national attention: 4-H professionals and animal science educators in about a dozen states reached out to NC State Extension for ideas on developing livestock shows and horse judging contests like the ones quickly developed by NC State’s Department of Animal Science.
The New York Times carried a story mentioning Tyrrell County 4-H’er Mackenzie Odom’s experience in her county’s first virtual version of its 71-year-old annual livestock show.
And Granville County 4-H’er Abby Holsomback, who won the senior division of the state’s horse judging competition, garnered more attention when she went on to win a nationwide one hosted by Texas A&M University.
Alaina Cross, coordinator of 4-H horse-related events in North Carolina, said the objective was to reward the young people’s dedication.
“We wanted them to have an opportunity to still reap the benefits of their hard work,” she said, “and to have something to work toward and to focus on during this time of uncertainty.”
Brent Jennings, youth livestock coordinator with NC State’s Department of Animal Science, said that there are probably 15 to 20 youth livestock shows and sales in North Carolina each year, with those in the eastern part of the state generally taking place in the spring, followed by those in the west in the fall. Most, he said, are associated with county fairs.
Young people ages 5 to 18 typically receive pigs, lambs and goats 60 to 90 days before a show, with steers arriving around 150 days beforehand. During the time the animals are in their care, the 4-H’ers spend about two or three hours a day with them, feeding them, grooming them and making sure they get exercise.
“When we found out in mid-March that all these county fairs were going to be canceled, we realized these kids had put countless hours in with these animals, had no avenue to show off their projects – there was no way for these kids to present their animals,” Jennings said.
In a matter of days, Jennings and his team had developed and advertised a new statewide virtual livestock show for youth. The goal, he said, was to recognize participants for the effort they put into their projects through the winter and spring.
For more than 100 4-H’ers ages 5 to 18, the event proved to be a way to learn even more about livestock, develop communication skills and have fun. While Jennings came up with the idea for the virtual show, it was Rachel Brown, then a student but now an NC State graduate, who found ways to use computer tools to create a dynamic, interactive experience – one that was, as she puts it, “free and easy.”
Optimism is something that we don’t have a lot of right now, and this has been a venue to instill that.
Brown used Google apps, the popular video-sharing social network Tik Tok and the Zoom video conferencing platform to create the show and the educational events that led up to it.
Jennings said the statewide event had two parts, just like the regular in-person events.
“Most shows have a showmanship portion and a market show. Showmanship is how good the kids can present their animals, and the market show relates to the appearance of the animal, including things like bone structure and muscle composition,” Jennings said. “The showmanship part of our virtual competition involved essays, and photographs were submitted for the market portion.
“But in addition to that, we held a best Tik Tok competition, with kids submitting videos of them dancing with their animals. We did a costume contest, where they had a chance to dress up themselves and their animals. And we did a best hair contest,” he said.
Feedback from participants, parents and others was overwhelmingly positive.
“Optimism is something that we don’t have a lot of right now, and this has been a venue to instill that,” Jennings said, citing his own experience as a parent of one of the virtual show’s participants. “It’s been rewarding to see these kids get excited about something, to know that there’s an opportunity to be involved, and that their hard work and their efforts are going to get noticed.
“A lot of kids need an ‘attaboy,’ and this has been a way we could provide that.”
A Decades’ Old Community Tradition
In Hyde County, livestock shows have been cherished community events for nearly 30 years. Each spring, dozens of 4-H’ers take part. This year’s spring show was cancelled just a month before it was set to take place.
The county Cooperative Extension staff didn’t want to miss the chance to celebrate the accomplishments of the 53 young people who had raised sheep, goats and pigs in anticipation of this year’s show. Extension 4-H Agent Lee Brimmage created a video highlighting their work and shared it on the county’s 4-H Facebook page.
In addition to photos and videos contributed by participants, Brimmage also included elements of a typical live event, including the pledge of allegiance, the 4-H pledge and an auctioneer.
Normally participants offset the costs they incurred in raising their animals by selling them in the auction that’s part of the usual Hyde County show. Some of them will even make money on the sales. This year, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of Hyde County’s auction, but Extension collected donations from local companies and individuals and distributed them equally among the participants.
Hyde County Extension also had success with a related 4-H contest. Those who would have exhibited their animals at the live show submitted videos on their experiences, explaining what they’d learned and what they gained from their livestock projects, Brimmage said.
While both the video and the contest were well-received, garnering “great feedback,” Brimmage said he and his 4-H’ers look forward to the return of live events.
“These are big, huge community events that are larger than 4-H. Your friends, families, school mates – everybody likes to be part of the show,” he said. “We’re hopeful we’ll be able to bring these events back in years to come.”
Abby Holsomback spent a mid-April day as many of us have done in these stay-at-home days, sitting in front of a computer screen. But unlike those of us who’ve been dressing down while working remotely, Holsomback spent her day dressed in formal black pants, blouse and riding boots.
Her task was to carefully examine dozens of videotaped horses for their ability to perform certain tasks, and even though no one was watching, she dressed up to help her maintain concentration. She considered factors such as the amount of each horse’s muscle, the structure of its legs, and its performance while ridden.
Holsomback, a 17-year-old from Granville County, ended up taking first place in the senior division of North Carolina’s first virtual 4-H horse judging contest.
Alaina Cross, who leads NC State Extension’s equine program, called the event “wildly successful,” reaching 155 young people across the state. Participation in the virtual event was higher than has been for the preceding five annual events that were held in person.
While the contest itself was mentally taxing, Cross said she and program assistant Lori Stroud factored in fun when designing a live component: a virtual awards ceremony to announce and celebrate the winners.
“Many families held viewing parties, hooking up the computer to their TVs, involving out-of-state family members and having a celebration,” Cross said. “We also did a social media contest where we encouraged participants to take photos of themselves in their professional judging clothes while doing the contest online and also for videos showing their reactions to the awards.”
These events made me realize how much I love horse judging.
The contest affirmed Holsomback’s love of the 4-H horse judging program. Her grandparents lead the local 4-H horse club that she has taken part in for most of her life, and she’s been riding for as long as she can remember.
She found the North Carolina contest victory to be especially sweet. Even though she had to memorize her reasoning for rating each horse as she did so that she could recount them in the last part of the test, Holsomback actually found the virtual competition less stressful than the traditional ones held in horse arenas in front of contest judges.
Following the North Carolina win, she took part in a similar Texas A&M University contest – minus the oral reasoning component – that attracted nearly 300 young people across the country. Again, she ended up taking first place.
A North Carolina 4-H team also came out a winner in the contest, taking second place among 55 teams. Team members were Madison Rosenbaum, Raegan Shepherd and EmmaRose Church, all of Johnston County; and Savannah Lindsey of Cumberland County.
Holsomback said she expects that these contests will be just as memorable as the out-of-state contests she’s been taking part in as she’s moved up in the ranks in horse judging in North Carolina and now nationally. And she expects that she’ll cherish the memories she’s made during them for the rest of her life.
“These events made me realize how much I love horse judging,” she said. “They showed me that I really can do it.”
Gift Provides for Life-Changing Opportunities for Undergraduates
Each year, some of the young people who’ve been involved in NC State-led livestock programs, such as this year’s virtual livestock show, end up enrolling as undergraduate students at the university and taking part in its intercollegiate livestock judging team.
A recent gift from a family that’s seen the benefits of such programs will enable the team to compete against other universities and visit leading livestock operations across the United States.
Judging team alumni have found this … to be one of the most significant things they did … at NC State, and we expect many students will have similarly rewarding experiences.
Inspired by their two sons’ participation in the intercollegiate team while they were students at NC State, Walter F. and Lee D. Teeter of Mount Ulla decided to provide funding to support the team and the student experiences it provides.
Todd See, head of the university’s Department of Animal Science, said the Teeter family “has strongly supported NC State, our Animal Science Department and livestock programs for many years, and this gift is just one example.
“This gift will enable members of our intercollegiate livestock judging team to not only hone their skills in judging and evaluating livestock but also to continue to learn and improve their skills in decision making and written and oral communication,” he said. “Judging team alumni have found this experience to be one of the most significant things they did in their time at NC State, and we expect many students will have similarly rewarding experiences, thanks to the Teeters’ generosity.”
The Teeters are both NC State alumni, Walter from the College of Engineering and Lee from the College of Sciences. Their sons, Garrett and Justin, were students in the Department of Animal Science. Garrett earned his bachelor’s degree in 2016.
The Teeters work together on their large, family-owned purebred cattle farm in Rowan County, where they often host 4-H and collegiate judging team practices. Meanwhile, Justin continues to be involved in 4-H livestock judging contests by providing cattle for the contests and also judging entries.