COVID-19 raises stakes for 4-H families |

COVID-19 raises stakes for 4-H families

Middle Park 4-H participant Amber Hester watches over two pigs she purchased to raise and sell at this summer’s Junior Livestock Sale. Participants are counting on their livestock’s sale to finance future participation in the program, and help with bigger ticket purchases, including college savings.
Courtesy of Holly Hester

For Grand County youth who participate in Colorado’s 4-H program, raising livestock to sell is where agriculture meets economics.

This year, the 68 Middle Park 4-H participants raising livestock — pigs, sheep, goats and beef — have also had to adapt to doing their projects, including tagging, entirely online. With Gov. Jared Polis’ stay at home orders preventing in-person gatherings, raising animals has gone virtual.

“I have seen some wonderful innovation by (Colorado State University Extension), and around the state,” said Olivia Clark, Grand County’s Extension director. “4-H meetings and correspondence have moved into a virtual format. We have been heavily utilizing avenues such as Zoom to stay in touch with each other. We were even able to virtually ‘tag in’ our hogs, sheep and goats using photos, ear notches and existing ear tags.”

Clark oversees the CSU Extension office in Kremmling, and she coordinates 4-H and other educational programs.

While there have been surprising upsides to educational content and programming being pushed online, for many participants, the most challenging aspect of raising livestock in a coronavirus environment may lie ahead.

4-H participants usually rely on the Junior Livestock Sale that takes place as part of the Middle Park Fair & Rodeo each year to sell their animals. Proceeds from livestock sales offset expenses incurred raising the animal, and older children often use the sales to help pay for college.

While the fair board has scheduled the fair and rodeo for July 31 through Aug. 9, as with most summer events, the event’s future remains uncertain this year.

“(The fair board) is optimistic about being able to have the fair, and is currently moving forward,” said Holly Hester, who is MPFR’s vice president and whose daughters participate in 4-H.

Hester said the decision to host or cancel a fair is being made county by county. Counties intending to cancel are planning to host a youth livestock show unaffiliated with the 4-H program, but that would give participants a way to sell their animals.

“We have not made it to that point yet, and hope we don’t have to cancel (fair). The sale committee is looking at options,” Hester said.

One of those options includes using DV Auction, which hosts real-time internet broadcasting of livestock sales. DV has extended its services to include live and close out virtual auction sales for Junior Livestock participants. The option gives kids an opportunity to have their animals judged and sold regardless of whether the fair takes place.

Randy Lewis, MPFR’s Junior Livestock sale auctioneer in previous years, said in a video message the auction house is flexible, and can host sales from anywhere. Their goal is to help protect 4-H participants’ investments.

“We usually send about 110 animals through the (junior) sale each year,” said Tim Ritschard, president of the Middle Park Stockgrowers Association and vice president of MPFR’s sale committee. Ritschard shared Lewis’ video message on his personal Facebook page to help spread the word about sale options. “We are hoping to have an in-person sale, but we’re also trying to cover all our bases to help these kids.”

According to Ritschard, the cost of raising a 4-H livestock animal varies from species to species, but can range from $150 to upward of $3,000, depending on whether the participant wants a show animal, or simply one to sell. Steer projects begin in November, and they cost $800-$1,200 per ton to feed. Smaller animal projects, including sheep, pigs and goats, don’t begin until April so the length of care time is shorter, but can still be costly.

For many 4-H families, not selling their livestock isn’t an option.

“If we do not have a fair this year, they hope to sell at market price and break even,” said Bree Thoma, whose two daughters are raising lambs. “It could be a big financial impact on us.”

Other parents interviewed echoed Thoma’s sentiments. At the very least, they need to recoup the money spent on feed.

Clark hopes the fair and market sale will take place this summer.

“Together with our partners, we are working hard to find ways for our members to participate and exhibit their projects, which they have worked so hard on this year,” she said.

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