Abby Scholz knows what she’s doing in the show ring. The high school senior from Bertrand, Nebraska, is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to beef conformation and showmanship and is a promising young advocate for the beef industry.
Away from the show barns, she also knows what she’s doing when it comes to learning about livestock production, and she can prove it through her certification with a quality assurance program designed for American youth who exhibit livestock.
Youth for the Quality Care of Animals (YQCA), a certification program for exhibitors between the ages of eight and 21, is only in its fourth year, but the program’s rapid growth suggests the need for more practical youth education in agriculture, providing them with the knowledge to help tell the industry’s story.
“It’s really important to also look at the production side of agriculture, and so I think YQCA definitely makes kids aware of production agriculture and not necessarily just the show ring aspect,” says Scholz.
This multi-species training program originated from the National Pork Producers Council’s efforts to meet standards set by the packing industry. Starting in the early 2000s, every U.S. pork producer had to be certified by a quality assurance program to sell hogs. This included youth who exhibited market hogs.
Paul Kuber, livestock extension specialist at Washington State University and vice-president of the YQCA board, was involved with the National Pork Producers Council’s initiative to create a youth certification program, Youth Pork Quality Assurance Plus. A number of states had their own multi-species programs, so many young hog exhibitors had to take both programs if they also showed other species.
In order to simplify this, Kuber explains, extension specialists “pushed the National Pork Board for an equivalency.” In Ohio, for example, the council evaluated the state curriculum and determined that “any student that goes through a general livestock program will qualify for Pork Quality Assurance, because it’s basically the same principles.”
From there, a new director of educational programs at the National Pork Producers Council spearheaded efforts to create a national multi-species quality assurance program for juniors, with the first organizing meetings in 2013. This initiative became a collective effort by several species organizations, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Dairy Farmers of America, the American Sheep Industry Association and the American Rabbit Breeders Association.
“The intent was any students going through the program would have a well-rounded understanding of livestock production,” says Kuber. “We teach them about every species, so if they’re a hog exhibitor they’re not just going to get information about the hog industry. They’re going to learn about livestock in general.”
Material for the program’s curriculum came from industry partners, existing quality assurance programs for the different species involved and state multi-species youth programs. While the program was designed to be taken online each year, instructor-led workshops are also available.
“We came up with the subject matter we thought we needed to teach from age eight to age 21, relative to food safety, relative to animal well-being and then relative to character education or life skill development,” he says.
The first exhibition to come on board with accepting YQCA certification, among other programs, was Denver’s National Western Stock Show. Now a number of shows in many states are requiring that junior exhibitors have the annual certification. In 2017, the program’s first year, around 5,000 youth participated in the training. The program grew rapidly from there, with more than 50,000 youth participating in 2018 and just fewer than 100,000 in 2019.
Depending on where their steer will be processed, many young beef exhibitors will be required to take this training. In the U.S., Tyson Foods requires all producers selling to its plants to be certified through a quality assurance program, and this includes exhibitions with market animal sales. In order to meet this demand, NCBA has petitioned Tyson for YQCA to be considered the youth equivalent of the Beef Quality Assurance program.
Looking beyond the show ring
For Scholz, whose family runs a small cow-calf operation in south-central Nebraska, YQCA reinforced her on-farm experience with more information on proper care of animals and monitoring calves to make sure they’re healthy. She has shown primarily commercial cattle for about 11 years, competing through 4-H, Future Farmers of America and open junior shows. Scholz excels in showmanship, winning several high-profile competitions in the past few years, and she recently started showing sheep as well.
This year, Scholz was chosen to serve as a Nebraska Beef Ambassador. As she heads into Grade 12, Scholz plans to run for Nebraska State Future Farmers of America office, and next fall she plans to study agricultural communications and journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
While she has more access to production information by coming from a livestock-oriented family, other juniors may not have the same resources available at home. “I can definitely see how it would be beneficial for someone who hasn’t come from a livestock background and started showing cattle because they want to and are interested in it,” she says.
One takeaway in particular was very helpful when it came to understanding a veterinary feed directive ordered in Nebraska in 2017 for medicated feeds with antimicrobials.
“Normally we could just go pick it up, but that changed and so we get a prescription from our vet,” she says. “YQCA helped me be aware of these things and aware that I can’t just feed my animals products that I normally would have when that new law came into effect.”
Although she loves the thrill of the show ring and credits these experiences for creating important friendships and learning opportunities, Scholz is also focused on the necessity of learning about everyday livestock production practices.
“This past year, I was really involved in showing cattle and it’s a really big passion of mine, but I tried to switch my focus a little bit to more production agriculture,” she says, noting that she plans to continue showing cattle in the future. “It’s definitely okay to get back to the production side and ground ourselves a little bit in what we need to really be focusing on as far as industry standards.”
That grounding, Kuber adds, is helpful to demonstrate to youth that not all practices related to show animals translate exactly back to everyday production or are realistic from an economic perspective.
“It’s a consumer product,” he says. “The ribbon is really great to chase; it shouldn’t be the target. The target is the entire experience, from the time you purchase that animal… and how are you going to care for that animal up to the end point.”
Representing the industry
In her role as a Nebraska Beef Ambassador, Scholz connects with consumers in a number of venues, and she knows the value of sharing the industry’s story in a way the public can easily understand.
“People that have grown up in Nebraska and the Midwest, we maybe take for granted the fact that most everybody we know knows about production agriculture,” she says. “I’ve been blessed to get the chance to participate in a bunch of programs that have taught me how to become a better advocate.”
Scholz would like to see effective advocacy given more emphasis in the YQCA curriculum. “I think it is important for us to portray our animals in a positive way and show them that we are doing things responsibly and humanely. But definitely I would like to see more of that in the YQCA program, considering social media is taking off and you can pretty much see anything from anywhere.”
The board is planning to address this gap by updating the curriculum and instructor-led training with more information on leadership and representing the industry to the public.
“When you have one animal, one youth at an exhibition that’s in a venue where you could get quite a bit of public exposure, it’s critically important that we teach them how to care for that animal,” says Kuber.
“When a consumer walks onto a fairground and they have questions, we want these youth to be the first point of contact. We tell them that it has to be a comfortable environment, as part of the educational process, and if they ever feel uncomfortable to grab an adult,” he continues. “But most consumers are just looking for information.”
This matters whether or not the junior goes on to pursue a career in agriculture. Kuber mentions a former student who was a 4-H member and hoped to become a veterinarian, but instead went to medical school and is now a doctor in an urban area.
“He’s got an appreciation (for agriculture) to be a responsible consumer and to share that message with other consumers he engages with that probably don’t have any agriculture (background),” he says.
“We look at this program as a way to develop knowledgeable consumers, to educate them on appropriate standards in livestock production and agriculture so that they have an appreciation and can help share our story when only two per cent of the population is involved in agriculture here in the United States.”