Michigan Dairy Expo is more than just cows and ribbons

Michigan 4-H youth took time out of their summers to compete at the Michigan Dairy Expo held at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, July 15-19. The gathering of 4-H’ers from counties across the state showcase youth who love to learn and have a passion to win.

The event features a collection of dairy contests that tests the youths’ knowledge and problem-solving skills. Teams from a variety of counties were decked in matching team shirts showing their county pride and preparing to give it their all. The clusters of color were scattered throughout the MSU Pavilion as teams met in preparation for the contests they had spent months studying for.

“Participating in the Michigan Dairy Expo teaches kids life skills that they will need for the rest of their lives: time management, confidence, sportsmanship, communication. There’s a lot that is to be learned from one week at the MSU Pavilion,” Melissa Elischer, MSU Extension youth dairy educator, said. “For some kids, they also learn how to accept defeat gracefully, learning that even when you put in all the work ahead of time, there will always be factors outside of your control that can result in you not doing as well as you hoped.”

This spirit of giving and caring for others is in the air at the Michigan Dairy Expo as youth practice good sportsmanship while competing in dairy quiz bowl, management, judging and showing competitions.

For most youth at the event, training begins early, meeting every other week months in advance to learn new information and sharpen their dairy knowledge. “We usually start practicing right after the holidays, kind of slowly, but as we get closer to spring, we increase our meetings and start visiting farms,” said Cathy Fry, coach of a multi-county team based in Isabella County. “We teach a lot about cow care, diseases and management.”

Coaches often glean dairy materials from MSU, Virginia Tech and other online resources. These materials help teach youth more about the dairy industry while improving the many skills it takes to be successful in this kind of competition.

The Allegan County group of kids have varying backgrounds. “Some of them come from farms, some don’t and others get dragged along by their friends. It’s really a mixed group,” Bev Berens said. Berens is an 18-year veteran 4-H leader and quiz bowl coach in Allegan County.

Isabella County’s group is the same. “I have kids on the team who are homeschooled who don’t get out much and I have kids who are outgoing, but they all seem to bond and work well together. Not all of them are coming off of dairy farms, they just like cows, which is really cool too,” Fry said.

Sam Geerlings from Allegan County is not from a farm but has a family cow and loves to learn while Sage Scripps, also from Allegan, has absolutely no farm background but was dragged into the group by coach Robyn Wixom. Scripps placed second in the management contest.

For some youth, they see the fruition of their hard work as it pays off during the Michigan Dairy Expo. The Tucker tribe, Caleb, Katrina and Colby Tucker from Allegan County, raise dairy steers and show sheep but have a deep
dairy pedigree from their maternal grandparents. “It’s fun to compete and win,” commented Colby.

4-H exhibitors had the opportunity to compete in dairy quiz bowl, management, judging and showing competitions at the Michigan Dairy Expo. Photos by: Melissa Elischer, MSU Extension

Olivia Coffey, a senior member of Allegan County this year, enjoyed winning the quiz bowl competition, “We work hard through the year but have a lot of fun. And then to win the contest is a sweet reward to the work we put in.”

Another member of the winning senior quiz bowl team is Shannon Good who comes from an organic dairy farm. Her parents have been breeding Registered Red and Whites for years. “Our team is like family. We do a lot together through the year.”

Teams feeling like family is common among the groups exhibiting at the Michigan Dairy Expo. For Fry, when asked about what it’s like to watch friendships flourish between the youth she coaches, she shared, “It’s awesome. I don’t even know how to put it in words. It’s one of my favorite parts.”

Once youth who were involved in the competition age out, many come back to coach or help their county’s team in other ways. Everyone wants everyone to win and volunteers and alumni want to make sure it happens so that today’s youth get the same experiences that they did when they were young.

Is winning the only goal?

“Absolutely not. Winning is just the victory lap,” Elischer explained. “Sometimes it’s nice to walk away with a blue ribbon or a backpack, but that’s not what the journey is about. It’s about learning, growing, networking and leaving as a better person than what you came.”

The youth that participate in the Michigan Dairy Expo embody every word that Elischer shared. Winning with pride and losing with grace, 4-H’ers involved with the dairy industry understand what it means to represent themselves and their county at the event.

“I really emphasize that we are a group,” Fry said. “I want you as an individual to succeed, but I want all of us to do well and help each other along the way.”

This spirit of teamwork and sportsmanship can easily go unseen at such a large event, but those closely associated with the Michigan 4-H program and the dairy industry know what it means to attend the Michigan Dairy Expo.

“The Michigan Dairy Expo is so much more than just cows and ribbons,” Elischer said. “Youth take a week out of their summer and spend time at the MSU Pavilion, building their knowledge, creating lasting friendships and truly learning what it means to be a part of the dairy industry.”

This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of the Milk MessengerSubscribe »