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Minnesota 4-H offers Co-op Calf, Co-op Swine projects for youths

WORTHINGTON, Minn. -- Morgan Junker and McKenzie DeGroot know a thing or two about leading their calves around the farm yard, but put them in a pen with their pigs and they shriek like they're under attack from the curious swine.

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Morgan Junker (left) with her calf, Stormy, and McKenzie DeGroot and her calf, Denny, pose for a photo Thursday afternoon. The two girls are participating in both the Nobles County 4-H Co-op Calf and Co-op Swine programs this year. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON, Minn. - Morgan Junker and McKenzie DeGroot know a thing or two about leading their calves around the farm yard, but put them in a pen with their pigs and they shriek like they’re under attack from the curious swine.

The girls are among a growing group of 4-H members enrolling in the livestock project in Nobles County, thanks to a program geared to teaching them about production agriculture and new experiences.

For the past eight years, Nobles County has offered its 4-H members - from ages 5 to 19 - a Co-op Calf project. In its inaugural year, they had 18 participants, said Darren Ponto, Quality Assurance Manager for New Vision Cooperative, the company that helped launch the project for local youths. While it’s had its ups and downs over the years, the program has 24 participants this year.

The success of the Co-op Calf program led Andrew Bents, a former Nobles County 4-H’er who now works predominantly with swine as a veterinarian with the Veterinary Medical Center, to inquire about creating a Co-op Swine program. 4-H’ers had to apply last winter, and when pigs were distributed in April, 12 eager 4-H’ers took them home.

Katie Klosterbuer, Nobles County 4-H Program Coordinator, said the co-op programs provide youths an experience they might not otherwise have.

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“It just gives them a new outlook on things,” she said. “This year there are a few kids who don’t regularly have animals or livestock experience and now they’re in the program.”

That’s the case with Junker, who lives in Round Lake. She keeps her calf, Stormy, and her pig, Charlotte, with DeGroot’s animals on the Kim and Corey Gronewold farm northwest of Worthington.

“I really love animals and I love working with them,” Junker said of her first year raising any kind of livestock. She visits her animals and the Gronewold farm as often as she can, and during the summer, that may be every day.

If she can’t get to the farm, DeGroot takes care of the animals. She’s had a little more experience, having shown beef at the county fair in the past. The pigs though, that’s a new experience for both of them.

“They’re a little stinky,” Junker said as she scrunched up her nose. “But, I like them. Mine bites - she’s a bully!”

Junker said she had no idea how much work it was to raise an animal. They need to be fed twice a day, watered, given attention and loved, she said.

DeGroot has also taught Junker how to hold the halter on her calf, set it up in the show ring and walk it around the farm yard.

All 4-H’ers in the co-op programs must pay for a portion of the animal through a lease program and purchase feed from New Vision (the business keeps a running tab and 4-H’ers pay the bill after they sell the animal following county fair).

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“We’ve had good success with (participation),” said Ponto. “It’s kind of our way to try and give back to the community a little bit.”

Ponto said the co-op program offers 4-H’ers an economical way to experience livestock production. When they sell their animals after the fair, the hope is they raise enough money to pay off their feed bills and put a little extra in their piggy banks.

“Pretty much every year we’ve done the program, the kids have come out ahead,” Ponto said. “It’s not a substantial amount of money, but at least they’re not showing a loss.”

Small losses have happened over the years, though, and Ponto said that’s a part of the true agriculture experience.

“I think the most they’ve lost is $50,” he said. “In the scope of things, that’s not a bad deal. It still teaches them that that’s what animal agriculture is all about - what production agriculture is all about. You’re taking that risk.”

While there may be a risk, those leading the co-op program hope it also provides a great learning opportunity - and of course there’s also the fun of showing the animal at the county fair.

Bents said the goal with the co-op swine program is twofold - to give 4-H’ers the opportunity for entry-level ability to show pigs, and to generate more interest in the swine industry.

“It has not only a teaching component but we also provide the animals at a reasonable price,” he said. “It’s a nice way for someone to get started. They don’t have to make the same investment as a show animal, and we teach them how to raise the animals.”

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For Ben Ahlschlager, a Worthington High School junior and 4-H beef exhibitor, the co-op calf program helped him get started in the beef project eight years ago.

“The co-op calf program is really good, especially for young kids just getting into it,” he said. After learning about livestock exhibiting a co-op calf, Ahlschlager was confident enough to enroll in the beef project the following year.

“There’s quite a few kids I’ve seen come into the program - it’s a really good program to get kids interested in (raising livestock),” he said. “They teach you the basics and you learn from other people. You get your feet wet, basically, in showing animals.”

Ahlschlager said the co-op programs have volunteers willing to help 4-H’ers. New Vision provided 4-H’ers a tour and explained feed manufacturing and rations for their animal, and the Veterinary Medical Center has also been helpful.

“Kids may not come from a farming background,” Ahlschlager said. “I think it’s great that local businesses help with 4-H.”

Members get feed and nutritional support from staff at New Vision Co-op, and Bents helped find healthy pigs and taught sessions on swine health, vaccinations, ear notching and other issues. At one session, the swine exhibitors even built watering systems for their pigs.

“Dr. Bents just has a strong passion for educating kids about the swine industry,” Klosterbuer said. “It’s a great learning opportunity and we’re so thankful for our partnerships with New Vision Co-op and Dr. Andrew Bents. It gives our youths just a new lens of learning and even career opportunities - it’s just an awesome opportunity.”

“The ultimate goal is to generate interest not only in the swine project, but also in the industry,” added Bents.

“The rural population seems to be getting smaller all the time,” said Ponto. “One of the big things here is we want to try and show kids there’s good jobs here - agriculture is a good industry to be involved in. That’s one of the things we want to get out of this as well - to keep kids around here and keep the ag community strong.”

Related Topics: CATTLELIVESTOCK4-H
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