Embracing our Past. Engaging our Present. Defining our Future.

Agricultural Technologies and Positive Youth Development

Megan Cooler

Agricultural Technologies and Positive Youth Development – A Foundation for Feeding the World

Aaron Alejandro-Executive Director, Texas FFA Foundation

Chris Boleman- Assistant Director for 4-H and Youth Development, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Jason Cleere-Associate Professor and Beef Cattle Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Barney McClure-Executive Director, Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association of Texas

Jim E. Reeves-Executive Director,Texas 4-H Youth Development Foundation

Billy Zanolini-Asst. Professor and Youth Livestock/Agriculture Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension


The Texas 4-H and FFA programs are rooted deeply with core values. Respect, responsibility and resiliency fueled by a passion for sustainable agriculture and leadership.  Some may look from a distance and say “they are just different,” and another may contend “they are not normal.”  That’s a tough observation to make?  In a way, it’s like asking “how long is a piece of string?”  Is it two inches long or ten inches long?  Maybe a more pressing question is “is it useful?”  Thankfully, some core values are constant and don’t change.   America, and the world, still needs three vital and renewable resources:  agriculture, youth and leadership.  We are speaking of young people of the Texas 4-H and FFA.  Our young people are involved, engaged and embracing “best practices” in livestock management.  Our students are raising animals in a way that teaches respect, responsibility and resiliency.  Here are some of the core values which some may see as different.

So what makes them different?

  • Would going out in freezing temperatures to break water and feed livestock before school qualify?

  • Youth sweating to build facilities under a punishing Texas summer sun so their livestock wouldn’t have to?

  • Different because they have to keep a record book (doing the math) on their livestock project to ensure integrity and accuracy to direct a profit and learn firsthand about a free enterprise society.

  • Youth who have the confidence to ask questions of qualified adults, veterinarians, animal professionals while also researching contemporary “best practices” in caring for their livestock project – not just through their eyes but also those of the consumer.

  • Is one a different kind because they are not afraid to use their bare hands to wipe the feces off of the backside of a hog to make it look its best?

  • Is it because participating in a project actually provides direct career preparation and exploration?

  • Are they different because they are driven by a passion to provide livestock with feed, water and shelter 365 days a year? This includes his/her birthday, spring break and all of the holidays.

  • Surely putting on a palpation glove and helping a sow farrow is not something you would expect of most youth?

  • Pen needs cleaning-required equipment: 1 shovel, 1 wheelbarrow, 1 student,…doesn’t that sound different?

  • Crazy to rise early to tend to animals and land when others their age are just going to sleep.

  • Some might find it different to witness a student who obviously poured his heart and soul into a project only to come up short in the show ring; then extends a hand to congratulate his competitor that just beat him?

  • Isn’t it uncommon to find a group of young people with dirt under their fingernails and callused hands?

  • Peculiar, don’t you think how they are always searching for a better way?

  • What foundation and core values are these students drawing on?

  • Why are initiative, responsibility, stewardship and innovation common values among them?

To answer these questions we must look back to the beginning of 4-H and FFA. The precursor to the 4-H program began in 1899 with the establishment corn clubs. The Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917 established vocational agriculture courses which eventually led to the development of FFA. While the paths to the formation of 4-H and FFA are different; the justification, purpose and missions are closely aligned. As you consider the possibility of 4-H and FFA becoming too connected to agricultural industry and technology; please review the primary objectives of the corn clubs below.

“(1) To place before the boy, the family, and the community in an example of crop production under modern Scientific Methods.

(2) To prove to the boy, his father, and the community generally that there is more in the soil than the farmer has ever gotten out of it; to inspire the boy with the love of the land by showing he can get wealth out of it by tilling it in a better way and keeping an expense account of his undertaking.

(3) To give the boys definite, worthy purposes at an important period in their lives and to stimulate a friendly rivalry among them.

(4) To furnish an actual field example in crop production that, be useful to rural school teachers in vitalizing the work of the school and correlating the teaching of agriculture with actual practice.”


We hope you noticed the themes of the objectives to be:

  • 1) Innovation-by improving farming techniques and “modern scientific methods”.

  • 2) Stewardship-responsibly gaining the wealth the land can provide through the “love of the land”.

  • 3) Initiative-to try new best management practices and engage in a worthy purpose of providing more with less while participating in a positive activity at an influential time in their lives.

So given the history, traditions and “core values” in the founding of 4-H and FFA programs; why are our ethics questioned for using FDA approved and available “modern scientific methods” for producing livestock? It is a great question and we will get to it shortly.

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the use of growth enhancing technologies in the beef cattle industry. More to the point, the controversy has been directed at Beta-agonists labeled for use in market cattle (ractopamine hydrochloride and zilpaterol hydrochloride). At this point we thought it was necessary to be sure accurate information was being circulated regarding the use of these feed ingredients in youth market steer and market heifer projects. To address justifiable concerns we thought it would be instructive to outline the concerns and provide feedback.

Concern: What are Beta-agonists anyway?

Answer: Beta agonists are animal feed ingredients that help cattle maintain their natural muscle building ability (ractopamine and zilpaterol are examples of beta agonists approved for use in cattle), resulting in leaner beef for consumers. They have been extensively tested and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (Provided by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)

Concern: Are there food safety problems with cattle fed zilpaterol hydrochloride?

Answer: According to the FDA, these compounds pose no threat to the safety of the food supply when properly used. U.S. beef remains a safe wholesome heart-healthy source of protein, B vitamins, zinc and iron.

Concern: Formulating cattle feed is complex. Improper dosage and length of time the cattle are fed the ingredients can lead to problems. How can youth and guardians possibly get the dosage correct?

Answer: Zilmax® and Optaflexx® compounds have been made available to youth exhibitors in a form that allows for proper dosage and administration. Further, The “Quality Counts” curriculum, developed by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and the Texas Education Agency/VATAT, teaches students about animal care and the proper use of pharmaceuticals. All 4-H and FFA students who exhibit at the major livestock shows in Texas are required to pass a Quality Counts verification examination prior to participation.

Concern: What message are we sending youth using these growth enhancing technologies? Is it consistent with the mission of the program?

Answer: Part of the learning process for youth exhibitors involves the responsible administration of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals under the guidance of an instructor, veterinarian, or parent. Further, these products are used in a beef production setting and understanding new technology is an important part of the learning process. A goal of the youth livestock program should be mirror the livestock industry when appropriate to best prepare youth for a future in Agriculture.

Concern: There have been reports stating animal well-being concerns associated with certain growth enhancing technologies. Should the youth livestock program consider not using them?

Answer: The proper care and welfare of animals are primary tenets of animal husbandry.  To prevent potential issues Agriculture Science Teachers and County Extension Agents teach students the types of cattle that should be fed Beta-agonists as well as environmental considerations. No one is better positioned to evaluate the well-being of a market animal than a 4-H or FFA member checking on them each morning and evening.

Concern: Why does Texas 4-H and Texas FFA support the use these products in the youth livestock program?

Answer: Texas 4-H and FFA do not support specific products; rather they support best management practices supported by the latest research. The programs believe in life skill development through livestock projects and the career development associated with using state of the art technology at the project level. Important note* Livestock production practices are only as sound as the ethical considerations and research supporting these practices. When animal well-being is compromised and our unbiased research no longer supports a practice; neither does Texas 4-H and Youth Development and Texas FFA.

Concern: Are there ethical issues associated with youth using the latest agricultural technology?

Answer: With respect to Beta-agonists; the products have been extensively studied and have proven to be safe. Texas 4-H and FFA are committed to providing youth with educational experiences better preparing them for higher education and career development.

It is important to keep in mind, that by the year 2050, the world population is expected to exceed 9 billion people. The greatest challenge facing the next generation of farmers is simple: Feed the expanding world population with less land and available water. Agricultural technology and its development will be critical to meeting this challenge.

As we suggested at the beginning of this article, youth in the junior livestock program may be seen as “different” and definitely not the “normal kid” you may see every day. However, the character traits and core values making them different are the very things that make them great among their peers. To suggest our students are not capable of using growth enhancing technologies correctly or responsibly is in direct contradiction to self-imposed “Quality Counts” character education.

The purpose of this article is not to support a product or industry. However, the people contributing to this article support an idea. What’s the idea? Educational experiences for youth should be supportive of individual initiative, compassionate stewardship of resources, a commitment to innovations in agriculture thus enhancing the quality of life of others and the successful development of young people into positive members of his/her communities. There is nothing unethical about that.


If you are interested in learning more about Beta-agonists please go online to review the following resources:

The Facts about Optaflexx™:  Ractopamine for Cattle


The Facts about Zilmax™ for Market Show Steers and Market Show Heifers




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