Successful youth livestock projects is in the details

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Youth as our livestock producers are in a unique position. While 4-H and FFA livestock projects are a small part of the livestock industry as a whole, they often are the “window” through which the public sees animal agriculture. It is essential that the view seen by the general public as consumers is a positive one. It seems that, far too often, we place way too much emphasis on winning and losing at youth livestock shows. Unfortunately, many times adults consider a youth livestock project a failure if their son or daughter does not win. There will only be one Grand Champion animal, but there can be many “Blue Ribbon Kids.” Success with youth livestock projects should be measured by the outcomes of specific goal setting by the youth and their family and accomplishments with educational achievement. Successful livestock projects are the ones that maximize the genetic potential of the animal by proper nutrition, health and general management. Successful projects are also the ones that provide an educational experience for the youth while enhancing responsibility, discipline and self-confidence.

Project goals should be set long before a livestock project is purchased, regardless of species. Specifically, a planned nutrition, health and management program should be developed. There are no magic feeds or rations that make champions. It is the total feeding program, including the feeding schedule, the exercise program and the careful observation during the growing and finishing stages, that makes a champion. The five basic nutrients are water, protein, carbohydrates and fats (energy), minerals and vitamins. The amount of work that is put into a project is a direct reflection of the success. Daily care is just as important as nutrition, selection and health. Paying attention to the details is vital.

Nutritional deficiencies often lead to failure with the project. Common mistakes include choosing the wrong ration, changing rations too often, not feeding the correct amount and getting the ration out of balance by changing ingredients or adding supplements. A feed that is consistent from bag to bag and fresh is very important in order to maintain feed consumption and performance. Also, make sure that a set daily feeding schedule is maintained and make any changes to the diet gradually over several days to avoid digestive problems. Be sure to monitor average daily gain and adjust the diet as necessary to meet the desired ending weight and fat cover for market animals.

A daily feeding routine should be set and followed throughout the duration of the project. For feed efficiency and dietary health, animals are usually fed twice daily. This means setting a feeding regimen for 12-hour intervals, not a twice feeding within 24 hours. Inconsistent feeding times can result in digestive upset, reducing gain, which in turn, can prevent the animals from meeting target weights. This is extremely important with market projects where we have set weights and market standards that need to be met. One exception can be swine projects. It is common to put pigs on a self-feeder during the growing phase, and this works fine if the pigs have an acclimation time. However, to meet defined show weights, it is often required to hand feed at some time during the feeding period.

When a feed is selected for your project, stick with it for the entire feeding period. This is critical for short-term projects such as market swine, goats and sheep. Every time you change feeds, the digestive system of the animal has to adjust, which can lead to lost gain or digestive upsets. A feed, whether mixed or commercial, should be selected before the project is purchased. Do your homework to know that the product will be available when you need it (supply). You may need to have a conversation with the feed store and communicate when and how much feed you will need through the duration of the project. The worst thing that can happen is running out of feed and purchasing a different type to get by until you can get resupplied. This means your animal’s digestive system has to readjust twice before it can get back on track!

Another common nutritional mistake is not feeding the correct amount. Often this occurs as a result of not accounting for animal gain and starting to short them in volume. Animals should be fed by percent body weight. Therefore, as the animal’s weight goes up, feed volume (pounds) must go up. Otherwise, you will only be maintaining weight and not increasing it. Eventually, if not corrected, the animals can lose weight.

Finally, water is often overlooked as a nutrient – the MOST important nutrient. Water is required for proper digestion, metabolic function and as a cooling mechanism. Water should be fresh and cool. Water containers should be cleaned regularly for sanitation, as well as encouragement for the animals to drink. Make sure the water source is in the shade. Sunlight can heat the water up like a water heater in your home. Hot water discourages consumption, thus reducing feed intake.

The amount of work that is put into a project is a direct reflection of the success of the project. Daily care of the animals is just as important as nutrition, selection and health. Paying attention to the details is vital.

Source: Steven M. Jones, Associate Professor

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