August 15, 2022 at 9:03 p.m.
The Swenson, Annexstad and Herberg families are three area dairy farms that lease animals to youth for the 4-H dairy program.
“The fair first began as an agricultural thing, and in some respects, that’s not the focus anymore,” Cindy Swenson said. “For fairs like ours, it would be hard to survive without the animals there, and for us, it’s good to see these young kids and teach them a little bit about dairy farming.”
Swenson and her husband, Paul, and their family dairy farm near Nicollet. Most years since 1940, the family has been represented at the county fair in the dairy barn.
“4-H has always been a big thing on our farm,” Swenson said. “To lease, we don’t call it work. We enjoy it so much.”
This year, they are working with four young children who brought eight animals to the county fair – one cow and seven heifers. The oldest is a 10-year-old boy while the others are Cloverbuds in the program.
Similarly, the Annexstad family is leasing to 11 individuals, one of which is also exhibiting in Le Sueur County. At the Nicollet County Fair, the Annexstads’ farm is represented with an assortment of heifers, from a spring calf to a spring yearling.
“All these kids came to us and wanted to lease,” Jean Annexstad said. “Even when our kids were still in 4-H, there were other families leasing our cattle.”
Annexstad and her husband, Rolf, brother-in-law, Mike, and family dairy farm near St. Peter.
The family has long been involved in the county fair and state 4-H organization, but their involvement in the dairy sector of the youth program began when Annexstads’ children were old enough for the show ring.
“Rolf and Mike grew up showing pigs, mostly, and I showed dairy from my family’s farm,” Annexstad said. “When our kids could, Rolf and I decided that as a couple dairy farming, it would be fun to have our kids show dairy.”
Megan Herberg’s family has leased dairy cattle to youth since 2008, when she and her siblings were still involved in the show ring, offering heifers from the family’s 50-cow dairy herd near St. Peter.
While the Herbergs’ herd is a mix of grade and registered Holsteins, they lease registered cattle to those interested in the dairy project. This year, the Herbergs are leasing four heifers – two fall yearlings, a spring yearling and a spring calf – to four young children for the county fair.
“My family and I have a lot of good memories of the fair, and we enjoy the opportunity to still be involved,” Herberg said. “In reflecting on everything we learned from showing, the good and the bad, (leasing) allows us to give those opportunities to kids who otherwise wouldn’t and, to me, that’s a good feeling.”
Throughout the year, the families work with these non-dairy farming families to provide each youth with a real-world experience of taking care of an animal in preparation for the county fair.
The days begin with the children choosing which animals they will train and then working with those animals regularly – halter breaking them to lead, washing and clipping.
“Showing a dairy animal is not easy and it’s hard work,” Swenson said. “But, these kids put in the hard work, and they see the end results. It’s fun for us to see that progression and the bond they make with their animals.”
“When these kids are working with an animal one on one, that teaches a lot of life skills,” she said. “It gives them a sense of responsibility and the opportunity to work with other 4-H’ers and families.”
The children also gain a greater understanding of the daily chores required on a dairy farm.
At the Annexstads’ farm, the youth are often working with their leased animals while the hay bunker is being filled, someone is hauling manure or the milk hauler is picking up a load. The children are also expected to help some.
“A lot of the older kids help me in the calf barn,” Annexstad said. “They’re expected to help a bit because that’s part of showing.”
While leasing animals creates additional challenges for dairy farmers on top of the everyday obstacles to overcome on a farm, all three of these Nicollet County dairywomen agreed the work is worthwhile for the future of the industry.
The adversity some have experienced in preparing for a county fair may lend itself useful in years to come, Herberg said.
For example, one youth registered two animals to show from the Herbergs, but one heifer was not going to make it to the show ring because of an injury. Instead, the youth brought a yearling to the fair that she showed last year.
“It’s the whole idea of working hard and planning for that work to pay off at the fair, but sometimes you don’t get the outcomes you want,” Herberg said. “These kids learn that. They learn about teamwork and become more confident in themselves.”
“It’s fun watching them succeed just like our own kids, but we talk about succeeding and we also talk about when things don’t work out,” she said. “Showing dairy cattle is a life lesson that sometimes things don’t work out even if you try your hardest.”
Nearly 28% of the state 4-H dairy program is comprised of leased participants. In 2021, 38% of the dairy animals exhibited at the state fair were leased. For the families that make up Nicollet County’s 4-H dairy project, they realize the importance of dairy farm families’ willingness to lease in order to keep a program strong and present an opportunity for youth to get involved in the dairy community.
Annexstad, especially, is grateful for those who support the program both at the fair and at the farms.
“It really takes a village,” she said. “I’m so proud of our program and all the kids who lease in our county.”
As much as leasing brings opportunity to youth, it also provides a sense of joy to the Annexstad, Swenson and Herberg families.
“We do it because we enjoy it,” Swenson said. “This relieves us from the everyday tasks of dairy farming, and sometimes, life is so busy that seeing it through children’s eyes is OK too.”
“As farmers, it’s work, but it’s rewarding,” she said. “I’ve always found it surprising how much joy kids bring into our lives. It allows us to remember what life is all about, slowing down and taking time for others.”
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