Marty Vahlenkamp serves as County Extension Agent for Hood County but he has had a much wider impact than just his county with his work with livestock education through the San Antonio Skillathon.
Vahlenkamp’s experience with youth livestock education began in Stonewall County where he raised and showed pigs as a youth exhibitor. He was also able to show at the San Antonio Livestock Exposition and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Showing through 4-H, he was able to serve on his district and state council. Throughout his time in 4-H, his interests began to lean toward cattle ranching and animal husbandry. He then attended Texas A&M University, intending to go to the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences there as well. Once he began school, he realized that he wanted to focus on other aspects of animal husbandry and worked toward a masters in ruminant nutrition. After graduation, he began working as an AgriLife Extension agent in 1999. When asked about his inspiration and motivation to become an extension agent, Vahlenkamp said that the 4-H program seemed to be drawing him back after growing up in the program. The experiences he had with 4-H gave him a love for the youth leadership and education in the organization. There was “no one moment that he made a choice to work in extension. It’s just where (he’s) been and has loved it ever since.”
Marty believes that one of the most important parts of livestock education is built on the basis of good citizenship, something that we don’t typically hear. People always talk about learning responsibility from livestock projects but to Vahlenkamp it’s about more than that. For him, it’s about life lessons and talking about what students can and should learn from livestock education. They should take away skills that can get them ready to be parents and should understand how to take care of something that is completely dependent on them everyday, all day. Students learn how to think and more importantly perform under pressure. Marty described a time when his son was just beginning to exhibit livestock when he fully became aware of this portion of the experience. “When they’re in the arena, the animal may not want to cooperate. Students have to remember how to deal with the situation and then deal with it,” he told us. “The judge is watching them and they have to be able to perform at their best under everyone’s eyes.” The pressure can take practice to deal with but will always be there in every facet of life. Students also gain confidence from the beginning of the project to the very end. Marty said that he likes to see the change in students that seem very timid at the beginning of their project. They gain confidence in their decision-making and self-ability, something that is invaluable in life and can come directly from handling and caring for their livestock projects. Vahlenkamp’s dedication and passion for livestock education is clear and is what led him to his work with the San Antonio Livestock Exposition’s Skillathon.
The Skillathon takes place in stages, which include a written exam, performing tasks at hands on stations such as drenching a lamb or taking an animal’s vitals and giving a speech demonstrating their ability to communicate the needs and strengths of the industry. There are multiple species for which Skillathons are available. At San Antonio, students have the choice of competing in the horse, beef, sheep, swine or meats Skillathons. In each species, exhibitors compete within age divisions with subject matter tailored appropriately. San Antonio uses three age groups: junior, intermediate and senior. They begin with basic information and eventually work up to including more science and production. Marty got involved with Skillathon beginning in 2011 when his first student’s entry was in the Sheep Skillathon contest. Marty told us “the contest looked good for scholarship opportunities” and “was what livestock education is supposed to be about: medications, feeds, industry and the food industry.” For the first few years he learned along with his students, practicing once a month. By 2014, they had diversified into swine and beef along with the sheep contest. In early 2015, Hood County had put together its own Livestock Skillathon contest.
We were able to talk with Marty about his goals for Skillathon in upcoming years both at San Antonio and within Hood County. He told us that in both aspects “it’s not about the competition but about learning as much as they can.” Vahlenkamp wants his students to be able to understand what goes on in the industry so that in their careers they can understand what producers do everyday and why. Of course, winning a couple of $10,000 scholarships would be the icing on the cake to help exhibitors with their schooling but winning is not the main focus. Marty would like to see the Hood County Skillathon grow as well. While it’s a bit different from the one at San Antonio in that it is based on all livestock species and has no speaking component, he believes that it can grow to including a speaking element. He feels that communication is an important tool for the industry. Last year they were able to give $1500 in scholarships in their county and would like to see a significantly higher amount in coming years.
Marty said that his next goals would be to expand the availability of Skillathons throughout Texas. He is planning on facilitating workshops for both 4-H and FFA students to learn about and become involved in Skillathon. He would also like to see some version of the competition added to the annual 4-H State Roundup. There is a national contest and a state contest could be used to qualify students to participate on the national level. Vahlenkamp would also like to see livestock education spread more and more into areas of urban development as well as suburban and rural areas. He told us that he wants to do his part in furthering livestock education by getting back to the basics and teaching the skills that can be used in real life as well as in Skillathon. “Urban society needs to be taught the basics so that decision makers can understand why we do what we do.”
As we began wrapping up our time with Marty Vahlenkamp, he asked that we invite anyone looking to get their county involved with Skillathon to contact him. He had the help of multiple county agents help him get to where he is now and he would like to pass on the favor. You’re “welcome to give him a call.”
By Whitney Green