Creating Partnerships to Expand 4-H Animal Science Learning Opportunities

December 2022

By Kirstin Koch, Extension Educator, Youth Development

U of MN Extension graphic

4-H has been providing an avenue for youth to learn about a variety of different livestock species for well over 100 years.  Often when fairgoers walk through the barns, they assume the kids showing livestock must live on a farm and their family must raise livestock; but today, that often isn’t the case.  With decreasing hobby farms across our state, Extension Educators have been creative in developing ways youth can learn about livestock without actually owning the animal.  From our animal science leasing program to the project bowl program to local hands-on learning opportunities, there continue to be many opportunities for youth to learn more about livestock!

Leasing 4-H livestock to show is not a new concept, but rather has been a growing part of the Minnesota 4-H program for over 30 years.  Youth are able to lease any breeding animal in the general livestock projects, dairy animals, horses and llamas.  Local producers may have breeding ewes or dairy heifers available for youth to lease for the summer to show at the fair, for example.  In the past, this was often an individualized relationship built between a 4-H family and a local producer.  Leasing is more than just providing an animal to be shown; a successful leasing opportunity is about creating a learning environment where interested youth can learn in the barn about the species. 

More recently, county 4-H programs across Minnesota have been centrally coordinating leasing opportunities through partnerships with area farms and co-ops.  The dairy beef adventure in central Minnesota, the co-op calf program in southern Minnesota, the cheap-cheep chicken project, kids for kids program,  the adopt-a-pig program, and many more pop up every year.  These programs create a structured  link between youth interested in livestock and producers on a larger scale than a one-on-one relationship with their neighbor.  The programs often offer coordinated educational opportunities, links to livestock professionals such as nutritionists and veterinarians, access to feed rations and supplies and organized resources to create a positive learning experience for youth interested in these projects.  These coordinated leasing programs help to remove many of the barriers that often exist between youth and showing livestock, such as industry connections, livestock housing, transportation and opportunity to learn.  

New for 2023, is an expansion of this type of animal science learning into the horseless horse project.  The horseless horse project area has been offered for years as an avenue for youth who do not have a horse to explore and learn more about horses, often through a county fair poster.  A more in-depth learning experience for youth in horseless horse was started in Dakota County in 2015.  This year, across Minnesota, youth will have an opportunity to learn more about horses through the Horseless Horse Roundup program.  The Horseless Horse Roundup is  based around that idea that was piloted in Dakota County, adapted during the pandemic and now our end product is a stronger, diversified learning experience for youth.   Starting in January, youth will be participating from across the state in the program and the series will include topics with activities, speakers and more. They will be meeting monthly in a  virtual setting  to learn about topics such as animal care, horse 101, nutrition, safety, behavior and more.   There is also an opportunity for youth to be matched with a mentor locally or attend a horseless horse day camp, for a hands-on experience with horses.  This summer, youth will also have the opportunity to showcase their learning at their local fairs. Learn more about this program.

Programs like these are only possible because of partnerships with farm families, local livestock businesses and dedicated volunteers.  If you are interested in providing resources or expertise in one of these areas, reach out to your local Extension Office.  It is through leasing and mentoring opportunities such as these, Minnesota 4-H will continue to create a pathway for youth to learn about animal science and experience livestock in a hands-on environment.