Youth Livestock Skill-a-thon

Final Report for YENC12-041

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2012: $1,993.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Manager:
Megan Nielson
SDSU Extension
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Project Information


[Editor's Note: To see the full version of this report with Figures, Tables, Appendices, and photos, please open the attached PDF version.]

Project Duration: April 2012 – April 2014 • Date of Report: April 30, 2014 2.


Prior to receiving the grant, I was in a newly created position with SDSU Extension as the Youth Livestock Field Specialist. My duties included developing and managing 4-H youth educational programs and educational curriculum within the beef, dairy, goat, horse, poultry, rabbit, sheep, and swine project areas for South Dakota. At the time many of the activities for youth were focused around exhibition of animals and traditional livestock judging contests. There was not a place for youth to exhibit knowledge within an animal project area or to educate youth about livestock production and the use of proper animal handling skills. The need for developing new programs for youth to engage in learning was quickly identified and we decided to introduce the skill-a-thon model to kids and families. Skill-a-thons teach current livestock industry topics and allow youth to demonstrate their abilities in a competitive setting through hands-on activities. By participating in a skill-a-thon, youth receive the opportunity to also network with agricultural industry representatives, as well as university faculty from South Dakota’s land grant institution, SDSU.

Youth Livestock Skill-a-thon Goals:
1. To educate youth about livestock production and the importance of proper animal handling.
• Current livestock industry topics ranging from animal health and welfare to selection, nutrition, and the market of animal products are presented to youth in a fun, hands-on setting that encourage youth to become more engaged in livestock production.
• Youth will be engaged in the new learning opportunity and excitement will be created for learning new information about their livestock production area.
2. Develop livestock skill-a-thons for South Dakota youth to participate in.
• Providing these educational experiences throughout the state will allow youth to become more educated consumers and give them the confidence to be advocates for agriculture.
• Youth will develop and/or improve communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills while also beginning their professional contact with the agriculture industry in South Dakota. Youth will receive the opportunity to network with agricultural industry representatives, as well as university faculty from South Dakota’s land grant institution, SDSU.
3. Promote the educational values youth learn from raising livestock projects.
• Youth who excel in understanding the principles of the daily care and management of their animal projects would be recognized and rewarded to encourage continued learning.
• South Dakota will benefit by building stronger relationships between the state’s current agriculture institutions/businesses and future producers/consumers who participate.
• The skill-a-thon will also invite new youth to livestock project areas without having to own a project animal.
4. Encourage 4-H volunteers and families to implement skill-a-thons in their own communities
• The use of livestock industry based facilitators at each of the skill-a-thon stations will create a volunteer base to assist with developing a skill-a-thon program locally and inevitably build a stronger learning community across South Dakota.
• Knowledge can be more freely shared along with the developed skill-a-thon materials.

Why develop a Livestock Skill-a-thon for South Dakota?
Livestock projects are not just exhibiting an animal at the fair and winning a ribbon. Youth involved in livestock projects are responsible for the daily management and care for their animal which requires them to understand basic animal production practices. In South Dakota there are very few opportunities for youth to exhibit their livestock management skills outside of a show ring. A program needed to be developed to showcase and reward youth’s knowledge within a livestock project.

The skill-a-thon model has proven to be very successful in other states to familiarize youth to current livestock industry topics and concerns. The concept of exposing youth to quick hands on exercises that can demonstrate their knowledge within a subject area allows them to be engaged in the learning process and promotes communication and critical thinking skills. Skill-a-thons can be tailored to meet a youth’s or an event’s specific needs. Station activities can focus across livestock species or be specific to a certain type of animal management practice. Given space or availability of volunteers, skill-a-thons can also vary in the number of stations or activities youth complete. Furthermore, youth can participate individually or work with a team to complete tasks.

Prior to this grant, the skill-a-thon model had been unsuccessfully implemented in South Dakota due to lack of leadership and experience with organizing livestock skill-a-thons. In an initial attempt ten years ago, the focus was on developing county teams to participate in a state contest. However, due to the inexperience of 4-H families and volunteers with understanding how skill-a-thons work there was little success to bring people together, especially due to geographic limitations of 4-H participants. Also, changing the traditional mindset of kids and parents to learn more within the animal project outside of a show ring was proven to be an issue.

None the less, thanks in part to the development of the new SDSU Extension position that could have a full time person dedicated to developing educational opportunities for youth and another that could focus on the 4-H livestock shows, we were able to refocus and develop a better plan for implementing the skill-a-thon model again in South Dakota. Learning from the past, we focused our efforts to develop a skill-a-thon program that could be implemented at existing events and did not require youth to pre-register, have a set schedule, or be on a team. Exposing kids freely to skill-a-thons was the first priority in order to generate excitement between kids and families to want to learn and get involved. After reviewing and assessing various skill-a-thons from other state extension programs and youth livestock groups we developed a plan to best fit the needs of South Dakota.

Where to host a Livestock Skill-a-thon in South Dakota?
Identifying key events that had the most exposure and could reach the most youth from across the state needed to be identified. The first set of skill-a-thons for beef, sheep, and swine were introduced at the 2012 South Dakota State Fair. Others were quickly added at other state events: Black Hills Stock Show Youth Day, the South Dakota Summer Spotlight, South Dakota 4-H Leaders Association Conference, and Dakotafest.

Who should help with a Livestock Skill-a-thon?
To ensure youth would actively participate within the stations, skill-a-thon station facilitators who excite and challenge youth to think were recruited. Volunteers from SDSU Extension, the SDSU Animal Science Department, commodity group representatives, local veterinarians, and livestock producers were solicited. Their guidance was also used to help build and develop skill-a-thon stations that were relevant to the industry and age appropriate for youth ages 8-18. We also encouraged 4-H Leaders or parents who wanted to learn more about the program and how to implement a skill-a-thon in their community to participate.

What types of station ideas can be used within a Livestock Skill-a-thon?
The following are example skill-a-thon stations that have been implemented in South Dakota Livestock Skill-a-thons.

  • Animal Handling and Health Practices: To address the concerns of current animal welfare issues, animal handling practices are a major component of the Skill-a-thon activities. Youth are tested on their knowledge and understanding of establishing herd health management plans that include biosecurity, vaccination programs, and treatment records. Youth practice administering different medications utilizing animal models and printed medication labels to complete animal treatment records. Furthermore, youth demonstrate and present how to properly and safely handle livestock to promote the understanding of animal behavior and use of safety precautions.
  • Nutrition: For nutrition management, youth complete identification exercises in grain and forage samples, animal anatomy for nutrient absorption and utilization in the body, and nutrient deficiencies that affect animal health. To assist in the education, feed samples and diagrams of animal anatomy are provided. Topics of forage/pasture management have also been addressed testing youth’s knowledge of intensive, rotational, and seasonal grazing systems. Due to the current South Dakota weather conditions and the effects of drought, analyzing samples of silage for nitrate levels were also explored.
  • Animal Selection and Marketing: To demonstrate the importance of using technology and animal selection practices to provide food more efficiently in a growing world population, youth use their knowledge of marketing and animal selection. They utilize breed pictures and mock performance records to identify and recognize different breeds within species and their attributes by labeling example pictures and diagrams. This also allows for the introduction of niche marketing concepts that utilize different breeds or finishing and managerial practices to be discussed. Youth also identify marketing program concepts used on the three levels of production; seedstock, commercial, and growers.
  • Animal Products: Meat and wool samples (storage containers needed) will be used for youth to identify. Retail and wholesale cuts of meat or diagrams will be used to show how quality and cutability are impacted from animal handling and nutrition management practices. Youth will evaluate fleeces and identify different quality attributes of wool samples.

How to organize and build Livestock Skill-a-thon station materials?
It is very important to work with a combination of experts within animal science and youth development along with people who can think creatively to keep station material relevant, fun, and age appropriate. In South Dakota we identify three age groups: Beginners age 8-10 years old, Juniors 11-13 years old, and Seniors 14-18 years old. Station activities varied depending on the age group. Types of activities were also varied to accommodate all learning types. Kids completed matching/identifying exercises, performed demonstrations, or problem solved. In order to maximize the number of youth participating and make it simple for kids to do between shows, stations were developed to be quick tasks that could be completed in less than 10 minutes.

Versatility and transportability of materials to be used again or in different ways to vary stations from event to event or between species was also considered during construction. Sheet protectors or laminating diagrams and sample pictures was an easy step to ensure materials would hold up in any weather condition. Velcro was another simple material used on labels during matching exercises to make stations withstand wind conditions when outside. Dry erase boards proved to be a fun, easy material for kids to utilize when solving problems and eliminated the need for pencils and paper in the skill-a-thon.

Keeping stations as hands-on as possible and visually stimulating was also important to keep kids engaged and drew in kids who were spectators. Thanks in part to the grant funds received, we were able to build several life-size animal models that could be used in various activities. Actual samples of feed from local feed suppliers, cuts of meat from groceries, and wool from sheep producers were donated. Utilizing real animal handling equipment, borrowed from producers, was also a fun way for kids to learn how to properly use items. With help from the SDSU Animal Science Department, actual samples of cow reproductive and digestive tracts have also been used.

When physical models could not easily be used we went to using virtual methods instead. Projectors displaying images within a classroom setting were an easy way to mimic life-size models of animals or equipment. The use of video on iPads was also utilized to allow youth to observe and identify proper animal handling techniques when real animals could not be used.

Realizing not everyone who helps with facilitating a skill-a-thon is an expert within a specific species or management practice, developing answer sheets for facilitators to utilize is equally important to building the activity. Complete instructions outlining the directions for completing the activity, correct or acceptable answers, and point value for scoring needed to be easy for volunteers to understand. Youth participant score sheets and facilitator sheets were color coded by age division to manage keeping track of various activities. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Example Beginner Swine Skill-a-thon Score Card and Facilitator Sheet

Scoring was kept simple and one clear answer or choice was possible in order for the skill-a-thon to be repeatable and consistent between youth. Each youth is scored on accuracy of completion within each station. One point was assigned per task and each station was based on a ten point scale. On the score sheet it is clearly defined how many points are possible within a station and easy for the facilitator to circle the participants score. Points are then added at the end to determine a final score within the skill-a-thon. A designated area for each station facilitator to initial was designed for accountability reasons.

How did South Dakota set up the Livestock Skill-a-thon at the event?
Having designated areas for each skill-a-thon station is important to keep order and keep youth focused on the task they need to complete. One table was used for each station and chairs were provided for the station facilitator and participant. Stations were clearly labeled and youth were instructed to complete them in order. Having extra chairs for youth to wait was also important to maintain order while waiting for stations to open up. Due to youth participation at bigger events, like State Fair, two rows of identical material were developed to allow more youth to complete the skill-a-thon in a timely manner.

There are many ways to set up a skill-a-thon room. We utilized the layout shown in Figure 2. for smaller events and Figure 3 for larger skill-a-thons.

Figure 2. Small Skill-a-thon Layout

Figure 3. Large Skill-a-thon Layout

What type of incentive program was used to recognize South Dakota youth participants?
Awards, sponsored by local and state livestock industry groups, are awarded to the high scoring individuals in each pre-determined age group. Awards are given in the form of equipment to encourage youth’s further involvement within the animal project and ensure they are using the most current and proper animal handling techniques. Examples of past awards include pig sorting boards, feeding equipment, and grooming equipment.

Volunteers who helped develop skill-a-thon station materials and facilitated stations:

  • Deanna Gall, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Hutchinson & Turner County
  • Kaycee McDaniel, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Minnehaha County
  • Jennifer Ringkob, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Day & Marshall County
  • Audra Scheel, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Aurora, Buffalo, Jerauld, & Sanborn County
  • Amanda Stade, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Lake & Moody County
  • Heidi Carroll, SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Extension Associate
  • Ashley Gelderman, SDSU Extension Swine Field Specialist
  • Jeff Held, SDSU Extension Sheep Specialist
  • Jim Krantz, SDSU Extension Cow Calf Field Specialist
  • Dr. Julie Walker, SDSU Extension Beef Specialist
  • Sara Jorgensen, SDSU Extension Mitchell Regional Center Secretary
  • Dr. Michael Gonda, SDSU Animal Science Assistant Professor Animal Genetics

Volunteers who facilitated stations at the skill-a-thons:

  • Stephanie Chambliss, 4-H Youth Program Advisor, Charles Mix & Bon Homme County
  • Mark Rowen, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Hughes, Stanley, & Sully County
  • Misty Welter, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Brule & Lyman County
  • Megan Peterson, 4-H Youth Program Advisor Gregory & Tipp County
  • Kari O’Neill, SDSU Extension Community Development Field Specialist
  • Dr. Stacy Scramlin, SDSU Animal Science Assistant Professor Meat Science
  • Simone Kern, SDSU Meat Science Graduate Student
  • Dr. David Thompson, Lakeview Veterinary Clinic
  • Shirley Thompson, Territory Business Manager of Zoetis
  • Will Walter, Farm Business Management Assistant Director, Mitchell Technical Institute
  • Suzann Hamilton, 4-H Leader
  • Carrie Hanson, 4-H Leader
  • Jeanne Johnson, 4-H Parent
  • Jeff & Beth VanderWal, 4-H Leaders
  • Barbara Bishop, Sheep Producer
  • Deanne Krantz, Beef Producer
  • Shari Rossow, Livestock Producer

To evaluate the Livestock Skill-a-thon program, scores of participants have been collected and progress monitored over the two years of the skill-a-thon program. Scores were reviewed after each event to see where youth need further educational instruction and assess station’s effectiveness at teaching animal production and management practices. Problem areas could be identified and further skill-a-thon material produced to challenge the youth to learn more in the needed area. Statistics on youth improvement will be measured following the 2014 Livestock Skill-a-thon year to evaluate true growth and knowledge within the skill-a-thon program.

Targeted youth between 8 and 18 years of age interested in livestock production were encouraged to participate in the free livestock skill-a-thons. Additional youth under 8 and adults also were able to partake in the activity. In 2012, 108 youth representing 22 South Dakota counties participated in the State Fair Livestock Skill-a-thons. The following year there was a 33% increase in youth and counties represented, 161 youth from 33 South Dakota counties. Attendance from SDSU Extension organized livestock skill-a-thons can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Extension Organized Livestock Skill-a-thon, Attendance

SDSU Extension Livestock Skill-a-thon; Event Date; Location; Number of Youth; Number of Adults

Miner County Livestock Learning Day; 6/3/2012; Howard, SD; 25; 4

Dakota Fest Livestock Skill-a-thon; 8/21/2012; Mitchell, SD; 5; 15

South Dakota State Fair Sheep Skill-a-thon; 8/31/2012; Huron, SD; 37; 10

South Dakota State Fair Swine Skill-a-thon; 8/31/2012; Huron, SD; 36; 11

South Dakota State Fair Beef Skill-a-thon; 9/1/2012; Huron, SD; 35; 9

Charles Mix/Douglas Co. Livestock Skill-a-thon; 12/21/2012; Lake Andes, SD; 10; 4

Davison County Beef Skill-a-thon; 12/27/2012; Mitchell, SD; 22; 6

Black Hills Stock Show Livestockology Contest; 1/26/2013; Rapid City, SD; 18; 7

Spink/Clark County Livestock Skill-a-thon; 3/29/2013; Redfield, SD; 16; 5

Hughes/Stanley County Livestock Skill-a-thon; 4/24/2013; Pierre, SD; 15; 6

South Dakota Summer Spotlight; 7/27/2013; Huron, SD; 35; 4

South Dakota State Fair Sheep Skill-a-thon; 8/30/2013; Huron, SD; 35; 11

South Dakota State Fair Swine Skill-a-thon; 8/30/2014; Huron, SD; 33; 8

South Dakota State Fair Beef Skill-a-thon; 8/31/2014; Huron, SD; 52; 12

South Dakota State Fair Goat Skill-a-thon; 8/31/2014; Huron, SD; 41; 10

Total Participants 415; 122

Sustainable agriculture activities demonstrating knowledge in the areas of animal welfare and health management were developed for youth who participated in the Livestock Skill-a-thons. Emphasis was placed on quality assurance activities that focused on how management practices affect the final product from animals (meat, milk, or wool) for consumers. The consumer’s role in shaping livestock production practices was also expressed through meat grading concepts and safe animal handling practices. Animal welfare is very important for youth and producers to understand and know how to implement within their own production systems to ensure sustainability within consumer markets driven by people not familiar with agriculture.

South Dakota’s agricultural community will benefit from this project because future livestock producers will be better educated and informed. Youth educated in livestock production may take a greater interest in the subject and continue with a career in the field, creating a more sustainable agriculture system in the state. Furthermore, the Skill-a-thon program will instill confidence in consumers of food animal products knowing that youth are properly trained in livestock managerial practices.

The Livestock Skill-a-thon program has sparked development of learning communities across the state to help in the planning and development of future skill-a-thon events.
The most important thing I have learned is how vital volunteers are to help promote, build, and administer a skill-a-thon. A strong volunteer base of veterinarians, farm supply owners, livestock producers, and SDSU Extension and Animal Science employees have been brought together to help in the facilitation of skill-a-thon stations. Teams of leading livestock industry representatives and SDSU Extension and Animal Science employees have also developed working partnerships in the development and creation of skill-a-thon stations. This model of brining industry together with academia to provide a quality learning opportunity for youth has proven to be very successful. Youth are learning the most current animal industry practices and discussing those issues with top animal production specialists.

Recruited volunteers who have helped build station materials or facilitate stations are the beginning of the strong learning community within South Dakota which in return fostered other learning groups to form and initiate skill-a-thons in their own local communities and after school programs. Ten 4-H Youth Program Advisors are currently sharing livestock skill-a-thon materials and coordinating their own skill-a-thons at county events. 4-H Leaders and parents have also started to incorporate skill-a-thon stations into 4-H club events and meetings.

Youth have a new excitement within livestock projects.
The most rewarding experience I have observed is the excitement youth are showing when they participate within the skill-a-thons. Many of the youth who participate in the South Dakota State Fair Skill-a-thons participate in multiple species regardless if they have that type of animal. In addition, older youth are also getting involved in the process of facilitating stations. Watching kids get excited to participate and then help teach others ensures the longevity of the program in South Dakota.

Future of Livestock Skill-a-thons in South Dakota
Due to the success of building a strong volunteer base and getting kids to want to do more within animal projects there is a strong future for youth involved in livestock projects. Continued development of new skill-a-thon opportunities for youth to participate in will be discussed. This year we will add our 5th skill-a-thon to the State Fair schedule, Rabbit Skill-a-thon. There is interest in forming a poultry and dairy cattle skill-a-thon in the future. Further organization and promotion of a State Livestock Skill-a-thon competition to select a team to represent South Dakota at the National 4-H Livestock Skill-a-thon will also be explored. State contest rules and procedures are currently being developed and contest material will need to be prepared. Learning communities formed will be utilized in helping implement a state contest.

How are Livestock Skill-a-thons promoted in South Dakota?
The focus was to recognize youth that understand the entire scope of sustainable livestock production and how the different aspects noted contribute to that. Online publicity of the Livestock Skill-a-thon program has been shared through the SDSU Extension website, This has allowed anyone to view upcoming livestock skill-a-thon events, see results from other youth who have participated, and provides an excellent resource for kids to study from for future skill-a-thons. Stations from the livestock skill-a-thons created for contests have been redesigned to be accessible online. Kids can log on and test their “skills” in featured skill-a-thon articles that cover animal selection or meat product identification in beef, goat, sheep, or swine species. These articles have also been shared through social media, specifically Facebook.

To help expand participation in Livestock Skill-a-thons, Livestock Skill-a-thon Starter Kits were also developed. Templates for premade skill-a-thon stations, scoring methods, and advertisements were developed along with instructional sheets for running a livestock skill-a-thon, station idea development, and resources to use. These resources have been made available to 4-H Youth Program Advisors, 4-H Leaders, and parent volunteers interested in starting skill-a-thons in their areas. Mock livestock skill-a-thon programs have also been utilized to visually show parent volunteers and youth educators how skill-a-thons work. Outreach numbers through mock livestock skill-a-thon presentations are shown in Table 2. Livestock Skill-a-thon booths were presented at each event that allowed for interactive use amongst participants.

Table 2. Outreach Training Methods for Teaching Livestock Skill-a-thon Program

Outreach Training Methods for Livestock Skill-a-thons; Date; Location; Number of Adults Growing South Dakota SDSU Extension Conference; 10/16-18/2013; Brookings, SD; 112

South Dakota 4-H Leaders Conference; 3/23/2013; Aberdeen, SD; 45

Miner/Lake/McCook Cattlemen's Association Meeting; 3/19/2013; Canova, SD; 45

South Dakota 4-H Leaders Conference; 4/5/2014; Pierre, SD; 40

Total Participants 242


Online Publicity of Livestock Skill-a-thons:

• American Ag Radio Network posted April 30, 2012


• Tri State Livestock News posted January 21, 2013


• Capital Journal posted April 24, 2013 o

• iGrow Articles & News Releases promoting skill-a-thons




• iGrow articles adapted from skill-a-thon stations






A. Example Beginner Beef Health & Management Facilitator Sheet

B. Example Beginner Beef Skill-a-thon Station – Understanding the Flight Zone

C. Example Beginner Beef Skill-a-thon Station – Injection Identification

D. Example Beef Skill-a-thon Station – Safe Beef Cooking Temperatures

E. Example Goat Skill-a-thon Station – Parts of a Meat Goat

F. Example Swine Skill-a-thon Station – Swine Genetic Selection

G. Example Sheep Skill-a-thon Station – Lamb Wholesale Cuts

H. Photos from the Beef, Goat, Sheep, and Swine Skill-a-thons

I am extremely grateful to have received the financial support from the NCR-SARE Youth Educator Grant program to help kick start the development of skill-a-thon materials. The time the grant was offered came at a perfect time when we were in discussion of how to start a livestock skill-a-thon program. Having the flexibility to use funds within the grant due to cost of material adjustments helped us purchase extra supplies not originally listed on the requested proposal. I have no recommended changes and encourage other 4-H Youth Educators to take advantage of this grant opportunity in the future.


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  • 4-H Advisors and SDSU Extension Specialists, SDSU Faculty, Livestock Producers, Veterinarians, Business People, Faculty from Mitchell Technical Institute
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.