Show Me Youth Ag Academy provides immersive education in livestock production
By Allison Jenkins, MFA Incorporated
Lamar, Mo., is known as a football powerhouse bringing home several state championships. But if proponents of the Show Me Youth Ag Academy have their way, Lamar will soon be known as a powerhouse in agricultural education as well. The one-of-a-kind program is in its second year of providing interactive, in-depth learning opportunities for high school juniors and seniors who are interested in animal science and ag business.
“My family has a small beef farm, about 40 head, so it’s really neat to get to learn how to do some things that we don’t do at home,” said Kinder Standley, a junior at Sheldon High School and a first-year academy student. “There’s nothing else like this type of program, and I knew I’d be missing out if I didn’t do it. I’m really glad I did.”
Founded by local businessman Danny Little along with other individuals in the community, the academy is a fully functioning ranching and feedlot enterprise operating on a 160-acre farm with breeding stock that includes commercial cows, Akaushi (red Wagyu) bulls and the latest in livestock equipment and technology. Little also donated the use of his nearby 400-head-capacity feedlot for training.
Some 15 students from area schools served by the Lamar Career and Technical Center are taking part in the program, which combines classroom instruction with on-farm lessons in beef production, economics, sales, marketing and more. The idea is to cover all aspects of the beef industry, from “conception to chef,” according to Tammy Bartholomew, the academy’s executive director.
“Students today want to see how they can use their education in the future,” Bartholomew said. “They’ve got to see value in what they’re learning. That’s why career training is so important. The academy gives them a taste of what the beef industry is really like before they go to college or enter the workforce.”
From its official launch in the spring of 2021, the Show Me Youth Ag Academy went rapidly from idea to reality. Bartholomew was hired “on the spot” in late May 2021, farm development started that July, and the first classes were held that August with Lamar High School students.
Akaushi cattle from benefactor Danny Little’s Wagyu operation are the foundation of the academy’s herd. This red Japanese breed is known for superior marbling, with its beef usually grading as prime.
The academy’s feedlots are filled with F1 Akaushi/commercial calves that are primarily black and red Angus crosses obtained through a grower partner program. The academy uses high-quality fullblood Akaushi bulls that have been obtained with funds donated by Little and provided free of charge to the academy’s grower partners. Bartholomew and the students are involved in the bull selection process this year as part of their program training.
Akaushi are a specialty breed of cattle also known as Japanese red, one of the four Wagyu breeds. Akaushi are known for producing beef with superior marbling, a rich buttery taste and extreme tenderness.
“There is no better tasting beef than what the academy and their partners are raising,” Little said. “It’s absolutely incredible.”
When the grower partners wean their calves, they are then sold at a healthy premium to the academy and placed in the feedlot, where they are grown to a finished stage. The academy’s goal is to partner with young farmers in the area to help them get started. The youngest partner is only 8 years old and hopes to be a student of the academy one day.
The Show Me Youth Ag Academy blends Little’s entrepreneurial background with a passion for farming and desire to see his community thrive. The retired community bank president said he knows firsthand that agriculture is the driving force behind the local economy.
“I wanted to help introduce area students to a hands-on education program that would expose them to a complete agricultural enterprise and show the many opportunities for great jobs in the sector without owning a farm themselves,” said Little, who also owns Redneck Blinds, an outdoor equipment manufacturer in Lamar. “Having experience in the latest technology, business management and entrepreneurial problem-solving can only give our students a leg up when entering the workforce. With the combination of Ms. Bartholomew’s experience and the vision and diversity of the academy’s board of directors, I believe this program will develop into an ever-evolving model that other communities will look to replicate.”
Even though the program is still in its infancy, the academy seems to be well on its way to fulfilling that purpose. Participating student Wyatt Cawyer, a senior at Jasper High School, said he wants to become a ranch manager or take over his family farm. Nick Moore, a senior at Lamar High, plans to attend nearby Crowder College and major in agriculture. Annabell Crabtree, a senior at Liberal High School, intends to make a career in animal science, focusing on reproductive technology.
“I’m looking forward to working with the vets to breed our heifers and seeing the results,” Crabtree said. “I love the hands-on aspect of this program. You could sit all day in a classroom and have teachers tell you how something is done, but it doesn’t really make as much sense until you’re right there doing it. And we’re definitely right there.”
Enrolling in the Show Me Youth Ag Academy doesn’t preclude these students from being part of their high school’s agriculture programs. In fact, the academy works in unison with the schools, integrating lessons and activities with each agriculture program’s curriculum and schedules.
“We aren’t taking these students away from their ag classes. They still get to be a part of their own ag program with their own ag teachers,” said Bartholomew, who has experience both in the classroom and on the farm. “I’ve taught agriculture for 36 years, and I wouldn’t want kids stolen from me. We’ve worked out a way where they can do both. The academy is like a class within a class, and I’m just a facilitator in their education.”
For Sheldon agriculture instructor Morgan Compton, the academy provides advanced opportunities for her upper-level animal science class that the school itself does not offer. She has three students participating in the program this year.
“We have a shop and a greenhouse, but we don’t have any animal-based facilities,” Compton said. “This definitely gives us a hands-on side to everything I’m teaching in the classroom.”
A typical day at the Show Me Youth Ag Academy could begin with a college-level lesson on the reproductive cycle of cattle and end with an experiential activity in breeding synchronization. This fall, the students have been focused on heifer development, choosing a select number of the Akaushi-cross females to keep for their breeding herd. They’re also learning to score cattle in the feedlot and ultrasound the finished animals for marbling before they head to market.
Along with an immersive education in animal science, the students are responsible for the business side of the operation, too, such as developing grower partnerships, managing the accounting and financing, and even advertising and marketing the finished product. Bartholomew said she also intends to incorporate a research element into the curriculum to help students stay on the cutting edge of beef production technology.
“I want these kids to find their passion and then get the skill sets that they need to be really good at it,” she said. “It’s about getting them ready for the industry. That’s why I’m insistent on them making as many decisions as possible and taking pride in this operation as if it were their very own. Yes, these are high school kids, but they’re young adults, and they can make those decisions with the right training and guidance.”
Agronomy is also an important part of the process, Bartholomew added. The students raised corn silage and native prairie hay this year and are responsible for maintaining pastures on the academy farm.
“MFA was really good to donate mapping services,” she said. “They did soil testing and grid sampling for us on the silage acreage and all the pastures. Then (precision agronomist) Grant Strothkamp and (crop consultant) Sam Hiserodt came in and worked with my kids for two days on how to read those reports and made recommendations on what we should be thinking about doing as soon as possible as well as long term.”
The academy operates as a non-profit 501C3 corporation and is governed by its own independent board of directors, which includes local farmers, ranchers, educators, Extension staff and businesspeople. All proceeds from the sale of livestock and beef by the academy will be used for future business operating expenses as well as scholarships and charitable activities on a local, regional and national level. This philanthropic aspect is near and dear to Little’s heart.
“Besides ag education, I also wanted it to be something that would help the community and teach kids the importance of giving of themselves to others,” Little said.
“For example, last week we delivered 400 pounds of Wagyu roasts to the Area Agency on Aging down in Joplin, and they’re going to serve it to senior citizens during the holiday season. So, this program is a combination of both education and charitable giving, not only creating opportunities for youth but also helping a lot of needy people in southwest Missouri.”
As the academy continues to evolve, Bartholomew says growing pains are inevitable, but, like Little, she’s a firm believer in its mission. She has big plans for the future, such as putting together a producer advisory board, bringing other schools into the program, seeking internships for academy students and hosting a regional symposium this summer.
“As long as we keep the focus on what’s most important, which is the kids, that’s what matters,” Bartholomew said. “Building something like this from scratch has been stressful, and it’s a huge responsibility. But I believe we’re at a pivotal point with the academy, and we’re going to see great things ahead for our students and this community.”
Reprinted with perimission of Today’s Farmer magazine. For more information, visit the Show Me Youth Ag Academy on Facebook and follow along with the everyday happenings of the Academy.
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