1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Dana Gochenour Virginia Correspondent
Competing in a national-level contest with only a few weeks to prepare sounds a little unbelievable, but that was exactly where the Virginia 4-H team found themselves heading into the National 4-H Livestock Skillathon Contest last November.
Many students spend months studying prior to small, local contests much less events like the skillathon, which draws teams from all over the country to the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky.
Despite the odds that were stacked against them, the team of Ben Good, Madison Slaven, Shannon Garber, John Clouse and alternate Jessica Houff swept into Louisville and won the contest in convincing fashion, beating runner-up North Carolina 4-H by a 79-point margin.
“I’m proud that they dug in and worked hard to win,” coach Eric Stogdale said of his team.
The team knows something about winning, too. They had to earn the right to compete in Louisville by first winning Virginia’s state 4-H Stockmen’s Contest, held in October at the Virginia Junior Livestock Exposition.
After that, some team members had other major events, including National FFA Convention and a trip to the American Royal to compete in the National 4-H Meat Evaluation Contest. That left about two weeks to really focus on the skillathon contest.
Geography presented an additional challenge. Good, Slaven and Garber are all from Augusta County and attend Fort Defiance High School, where Stogdale is an agriculture teacher and FFA adviser. But Clouse, a member of Montgomery County 4-H and recent graduate of Blacksburg High School, is over an hour away.
Luckily, according to Stogdale, the contest builds on what students learn in agriculture classes and they “picked up background knowledge from other contests” as well.
Each of the team members participates in a long list of 4-H and FFA contests, all of which contribute to the combination of knowledge and communication skills necessary to win an event like the skillathon.
“(The skillathon) really tests your knowledge,” said Garber.
“There is a lot more information for each sector of the (livestock) industry,” said Good, who was the high individual of the contest.
Stogdale held practices after school three times a week, with Clouse traveling to join his teammates on the weekends.
“The group dynamics on the trip was cool,” Clouse said of getting to know his teammates better.
“When you work so long and hard it creates a bond with your teammates, almost like a family,” said Garber.
Stogdale has coached five skillathon teams in the last seven years, so current teams study materials used in previous contests in order to know what to expect.
This year’s contest featured some significant changes, including the substitution of pigs in a hands-on team exercise that traditionally involved working with sheep. Good, Garber and Clouse all agreed that the switch was the biggest and most challenging surprise they encountered, but Stogdale was impressed that they were able to roll with the changes.
“They handled it really well,” he said.
The emphasis on team activities is the primary difference that separates the skillathon from more traditional stockmen’s contests. In addition to working with a group of pigs in front of the judges, team members also worked together on a carcass evaluation exercise, answered judges’ questions about swine feeds and feeding methods, evaluated groups of feeder calves and discussed marketing strategies and defended their choices in a breeding goat selection scenario.
“It was very different (from other contests) to have to interact as a team and with the judges,” said Garber.
“They have to divide the work and trust their team members to go out and do it correctly,” Stogdale said.
The contest also included wool judging, an individual exercise that the team members had never previously encountered. In order to prepare, they got a quick lesson on wool quality from Clouse’s mother, who raises sheep and is a hand spinner.
With such a wide variety of topics to cover, each team member was able to find their niche and contribute to the team’s success.
“Everyone can find something that they are good at,” Slaven said. “We’ve all known each other a long time, so we are comfortable giving opinions to each other and working together to figure it out.”
The team placed first in the identification and quality assurance portions of the contest and fifth in the evaluation exercises, combining to give them the overall win.
“It kind of blows your mind, and then a couple of days later it sinks in,” said Clouse of the win.
“We were all really excited,” added Slaven, whose two siblings have competed on previous skillathon teams.
Though Slaven said her siblings did not offer her any advice prior to the contest, the team received plenty of support from the community. In addition to decreased study time, the short window between contests also left little time to raise the funds necessary for the team to make the trip to Louisville.
“We are incredibly thankful to the community for sponsorships,” Stogdale said. “Things like this couldn’t happen without their support.”
Stogdale said he also was thankful for the can-do attitude the team showed.
“Working with really enthusiastic kids who want to learn makes my job more enjoyable,” he said.