What’s the big deal about showmanship?

Some livestock classes can help refocus 4-H youth livestock projects from winning the championship to the process of learning and growing as a showman.

Michigan 4-H offers youth the opportunity to raise and show livestock animals. From small animals such as poultry and rabbits, all the way to large animals like pigs and beef steers. For youth who take advantage of this opportunity, their livestock projects tend to be a culminating experience in their 4-H careers. When you talk to 4-Hers who raise livestock animals about 4-H, the first thing they’re likely to talk about is their livestock projects.

While all projects take hard work throughout the year, raising animals is an everyday commitment. Between morning and evening chores, regular walks and washing along with fitting and grooming, youth who show livestock make a lot of sacrifices. They have to learn to manage their time as this commitment for some animals can be as long as two years. Youth who raise livestock become experts of their animal species during the process that occurs when raising the project until its finished state.

Livestock projects should be much more than the tangible product shown during the fair. Outside of time management, youth can develop extensive additional life skills. Youth in livestock projects have to learn self-motivation. 4-H is built on the model of experiential education and it is expected that youth fully engage as the primary caregivers for their animals. This independence also requires a cultivated sense of self-discipline. These skills serve youth well as they transition from 4-H and high school into post-secondary education and careers.

Not in every case, but many county 4-H programs require youth keep a record book on their livestock animal. This helps youth develop skills in goal setting, planning and staying organized. Record keeping is directly applicable to later requirements, such as budgeting, managing projects and maintaining logs of work completed and resources used. In keeping records, youth know how much their animal has been fed and what kinds of feed, what measures of disease prevention they’ve implemented, rate of gain data and the physical anatomy of their animal.

Because livestock shows are fashioned in a competitive nature, there are usually grand and reserve champion animals. These are determined by a series of classes, often separated by breed or animal weight, where an expert judge examines each project for market finish, muscle and bone structure, among other things. Also awarded are recognitions for the best showman. In showmanship classes, also known as “Fitting and Showing,” youth – rather than the animals – are judge based on their ability to present their animal in the best light possible. Showmanship classes are usually separated based on participant age or experience showing. It is in these classes youth are able to present the development of their life skills and their extensive knowledge cultivated through the raising and record keeping of their animal project.

4-H isn’t about winning or losing. Rather, it is a program that aims to provide a safe environment for youth to grow by developing life skills and positive relationships with peers and adults. When it comes to livestock shows, showmanship classes really embody this process for learning where market classes don’t necessarily have such a youth focus. If you are a parent, model the importance of record keeping by balancing your checkbook or filling in the family calendar while your youth write in their project record books. If you are a livestock project leader, host meetings at various club youth farms and ask senior project youth to teach less experienced youth project skills such as conditioning, washing, grooming/fitting, health care, nutrition/feeding/rate of gain and showmanship.

Lastly, if you are a barn superintendent or a show organizer, consider requiring that youth who wish to sell at livestock auction show in their respective showmanship class. These efforts would reassign the value of showing livestock from winning the champion animal to cultivating life skills, being a lifelong learner and thus the best showman one can be. Showmanship gives everyone the chance as making his or her best better, as you don’t have to have a champion animal to win champion showman.

For more information on 4-H or how to be involved in livestock projects, please contact your local Michigan State University Extension office

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