Sept. 23 2014 06:54 AM

Some youth exhibitors don't have dairy backgrounds but still walk away with life lessons.

New Mexico boasts the largest average herd size in the nation (2,307 cows per farm in 2013), so dairy is no stranger to the state. However, a smaller number of large farms means that traditional "farm kids", ones that grow up living and working on their family's farm, are fewer and farther between.

This distance from the farm does not prevent some youth from participating in the dairy project. At the New Mexico State Fair last week, a small but vibrant dairy show took place.

One exhibitor, Karina McCarty (pictured above), did not grow up on a farm; in fact, her family had no real connection to the dairy industry. That didn't stop her 7-year-old self from wanting to show dairy cattle. To fulfill his young daughter's wish, her father Newt made contact with a local dairy farm to borrow some calves so that Karina and her sister could show once they were 4-H age. Those first experiences in the show ring were just what Karina had hoped, and five years later the eighth grader continues to show animals from two dairy farms near their hometown.

Newt doesn't have a dairy background either, but his daughter's passion led him to become a supporter and volunteer at the state fair dairy show.

"Regardless of background, the kids learn life skills," Newt explained. "They learn about raising and caring for animals. They learn people skills, how to work together and how to share equipment."

"The producers are always supportive," he added. "And you don't have to have an ag background . . . people are always willing to help once you get to the show."

One big lesson Karina has realized from showing is that there is always room to improve and grow. "I have learned tons every year, but there's always more to learn."

Most of the exhibitors are either 4-H or FFA members, but a majority are like Karina and not from farms, Newt said. Adrian Lunsford (pictured above) is an exception as he has some agriculture in his background; his family raises beef cattle.

Adrian got interested in the dairy project because his brother showed. They have worked with a farm in a neighboring town to acquire their animals. Adrian commented on the great opportunity and support the farm provides him, allowing him to come out and select which animals he wants to show, and then giving him help and mentorship on the farm as he works with his animals. A junior in high school, Adrian has his eyes set on law school someday, where he feels some of the skills learned through the dairy project will come in handy.

The New Mexico State Fair dairy exhibitors may not be your typical "farm kids", but they are enjoying the showing experience nonetheless and are no doubt learning some life lessons along the way.

"The show also teaches about competition, the fact that life is not always fair. In some cases, those at the bottom of the class may have worked harder than the winners," Newt noted. "Regardless of placing, the state fair provides a safe environment to learn what to improve for next year."

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The author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.