Learning life lessons a part of raising 4-H animals

Photo by Tamie Meck Sisters Autumn Kiefer, left, and Lauren Kiefer prepare to weight Autumn's 4-H Boere show goat, Finnick, while Talya nibbles at Autumn's hair and Luna hides in the corner. The Kiefers are among some 600 Delta County 4-H and Future Farme

Like hundreds of kids in Delta County, 4-H members Lauryn and Autumn Kiefer are up at dawn doing chores. Seven days a week they tend to the chickens, pigs, cows and goats they raise on their family farm on Rogers Mesa.

It's two weeks before the 114th annual Delta County Fair. Autumn is weighing her fair Boere goat, Finnick, one of her three goats. First, Lauryn leads her Yorkshire show pig Frankie to the scale. After weighing him, she records his weight: 265 pounds.

Frankie must weigh between 230-300 pounds for the fair, says Lauryn. If farm animals like him come in so much as an ounce over or under weight, "We can't sell them, but we can show them." And since pigs can gain two or more pounds a day, it'll be close with Frankie. If she isn't able to put him in the sale, he'll be food for the family, she says matter-of-factly.

Autumns' goat Finnick weighs 55.2 pounds ­-- just shy of the 60-pound limit. But goats don't gain weight nearly as fast as pigs, she says. And this breed isn't a meat goat, so he'll be around a while.

The Kiefers are among an estimated 600 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) kids in Delta County who will participate in this year's fair, according to fair board president Ryan Bates. For many, but not all, agriculture is a family tradition. Dad Kevin graduated from high school back when it had an FFA chapter. (Hotchkiss, Cedaredge and Delta have active FFA chapters.)

Mom Becky grew up in Kansas. Need we say more? Lower elementary lead teacher at North Fork Montessori School at Crawford, in June she was among 400 educators nationwide selected to attend the annual National Agriculture in the Classroom conference at Little Rock, Ark. She and fellow teacher and mentor Cami Bair are working to bring agriculture-based curriculum into the pre-K-6 school. The conference, she said, brought her into the world of 21st-century agriculture, where scientists, farmers and others are seeking ways to feed the world's growing population.

The family all works on the farm. But it's work they all seem to enjoy. They point to a new arena neighbors built down the way, and discuss what area farmers are doing this summer. This is ag country, and for many kids, chores are a part of everyday life.

A junior at Paonia High School, Lauryn has been in 4-H for nine years and done some livestock judging. She's won several ribbons and raised a reserve champion and two grand champions. "There was Midnight, Oreo, Captain Hobo, Bermuda, Brutus, Toad..."

This year's pig is Frankie, a pink Yorkshire breed from Crane Show Pigs. His companion (pigs don't like to be alone) is Johnny, a black Berkshire from Zimmerman Pork Farm in Hotchkiss. He is not for show.

"People think they're just pigs and wallow in the mud," she says as Johnny rolls over on his back and she rubs his big belly. "But they're so much more than that. They really have a personality."

While summer chores aren't bad, "Winter is not any fun." But doing chores seven days a week isn't the hardest part of being in 4-H. The hardest part, says Lauryn, a three-sport athlete and honors student at Paonia High School, is juggling academics, sports and animals. They also have to fill out log books and "It's all time management," she says. "I love it though. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

It's also hard to sell the animals in the market livestock sale, considered the finale of the fair. "Every year we cry," she says. But it's part of raising 4-H animals and it does get easier. It is also tradition on the morning of the sale to go to City Market and buy Jello and pudding and cookies and other tasty treats for their last meal.

"After the sale there are a lot of tears," says Becky. "Every kid is crying." But there's a lesson there, she adds. While most kids think their food comes from a store, "The kids know what goes into raising animals from start to finish."

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