A middle school Florida FFA chapter has proven if you give a kid a cow, you give them the keys to so much more.
Madison Hartwig and Marina Redden spent hours before and after school earlier this year taking care of their dairy cows at R. Dan Nolan Middle School’s land lab. Hartwig, whose dad showed cows in high school and sister did the same in middle school, has had some practice. For 11-year-old Redden, whose family hails from a Manatee County subdivision without a single cow in sight, it was her first time taking care of a cow.
“I wanted to show animals and my friend was in it and said it was fun,” Redden said.
Redden and Hartwig were among 11 students who showed dairy cattle from Nolan Middle School this year at the Manatee County Fair. A few even went on to show at the Florida State Fair.
But it’s a tradition that has started since the school first opened in Bradenton and it’s all thanks to the Dakin Dairy and their leasing program.
A multi-generational Florida family farm, Dakin Dairy is known for their sweet, white milk that the family attributes to their herd’s diet of fresh grass cut twice daily, mixed with grains, minerals, and hay. But to the students in Nolan FFA, Dakin Dairy is know for so much more.
“The students love getting to pick out their cows from the dairy and they all love getting to take care and experience showing them in the fair,” said Carolyn Gilbert, who has been the Nolan FFA Advisor for three years and an agricultural educator for 14. “The Dakin Dairy farm loves giving the opportunity to students to be able to show theses amazing animals.”
While the dairy cows are only on lease for a few months and returned after fair season, Gilbert says the time the kids get with the animals is invaluable.
“The skills they learn are responsibility and commitment to the care and training of their animals,” Gilbert said. “The students can usually use more cows as their showing experience grows.”
Hartwig, who showed two cows, June Bee and Mojo, this year found the opportunity a great way to also get other middle school students interested.
“I showed them an interest by letting them feed and walk my leased cows from Dakin Dairy,” Hartwig said. “I would show them how much work and fun the dairy projects are.”
Redden echoed Hartwig, saying the dairy project was a great way for a city kid to ease into the FFA scene.
“I would encourage them because I didn’t come from a farming background myself and it is really fun and very educational,” Redden said. “Also, you don’t sell them so it is a good first project.”
“Dairy cattle are very affectionate and informative. You don’t sell the calves so it is a good first-time project,” Hartwig said. “Dairy cows teach you about the dairy industry as well, so it is a great project.”
Besides learning animal husbandry and getting a deeper appreciation for the nation’s hardworking dairy farmers, both girls said they also gained new friends.
“I love it because it is really fun and you get a chance to bond with your animal and the people in our dairy group are all very nice,” Redden said.
“I love it because all the girls in our school program are friendly and nice,” Hartwig said. “We really have become a family.”