Perspectives Online

College Profile. Dr. Brian Faris teaches life lessons as he gives livestock lessons to 4-H youth. By Terri Leith

Dr. Brian Faris
Photo by Daniel Kim

Brian Faris is a Texan. It's apparent from his headgear and belt buckle that would do a country music "hat act" proud. But what's most telling is his signature greeting. "Howdy!" says Faris, whether he's addressing you in person, on his voice mail recording or on his 4-H youth livestock newsletter.

Faris is 4-H youth livestock specialist in the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It's his job to oversee all the state's 4-H livestock programs, from showing of swine, cattle, goats and sheep, to leadership-related projects such as beef char grill and pork cookery, junior beef round-up and livestock, companion animal and small animal presentations.

He believes that the youth livestock program makes a difference in the lives of its young participants as well as an impact on the livestock industry.

At the state 4-H Livestock Judging Contest in July, Faris checked on the progress of these youngsters as they tried their skills at goat selection. "We're trying to teach these kids what the livestock industry is all about," he says.
Photo By Daniel Kim
"It's going to ensure that our industry survives," Faris says. "We've seen downsizing in terms of the peopling of the industry. What I want to see us do is encourage the 4-H kids and animal science students to stay involved in the industry. We can draw on these kids who have the background and have grown up in it to stay and be spokespersons for our industry."

Faris himself was one of those kids. "I was a 4-H'er from the word go," says the native of Sonora, Texas. In fact, he attended his first livestock show at the age of six months, when he accompanied his father, who was a county extension agriculture agent in Texas and was also in charge of livestock 4-H. (That's a family record already bested by Faris' daughter, two-year-old Raylee, who at age 3 weeks accompanied her father to a county lamb and goat show in New Mexico.)

Faris came to N.C. State in 2004 from New Mexico State University, where he received his Ph.D. in ruminant reproductive physiology, having earned his bachelor's degree in animal science from Texas A&M and his master's in animal science from Angelo State in San Angelo, Texas. He pursued all three degrees with one goal in mind. "I wanted to be an extension specialist. My passion is working with people, with individuals on a daily basis, and we get to do that more in extension," he says.

"My dad was my biggest inspiration. I remember going to ranch after ranch with him, working around livestock all summer long, and there were times I got to ride with him to judge livestock shows in other cities. That was his and my time, as I grew up."

He recalls that his dad advised him to consider a career more lucrative than being an extension agent, "but I said, 'Dad, I can't see myself getting away from agriculture. I want to teach people about agriculture, so that it doesn't die,'" Faris says.

"There's too many of us that grew up in it that are going into other fields trying to make more money. But we end up hanging the foundation of our lives out to dry."

So his father told him to specialize, "and that's why I went on to get my master's and Ph.D.," Faris says, adding that his father-in-law is the Texas sheep and goat specialist, "so he's had some influence in my life."

Faris, his wife, Reyna, and Raylee remain close to their agricultural roots at their northwestern Johnston County home not far from Wendell, where they raise goats and border collies, and from which he commutes to the N.C. State campus.

His role in the College is a unique one, Faris says, in that it was geared directly for 4-H youth livestock.

"We don't have a program like this in Texas or New Mexico or a lot of other states I know of, where a lot of 4-H work falls on the livestock specialists. So when I heard about this job, I was ecstatic.

"It's allowed me to do what I grew up working with and enjoying. I get to relive my childhood and get paid for it." What he's most excited about, he says, is "the fact I work with kids. I've got the best job in the world because I get to work with kids and livestock."

Faris gives a friendly pat to a goat being evaluated by two 4-H'ers.
Photo By Daniel Kim
His goals include "seeing this program really grow. I think there's a lot of room for growth involving kids in urban areas in judging and presentations. The companion animal curriculum is a great route for that," says Faris, referring to a new program that will teach youths to work with and care for companion animals, including taking the animals to visit the elderly in adult care facilities. "But I also want to bring kids from the urban side and educate them about livestock animals."

In the long term, he says, "I hope we can keep strong our traditional livestock programs. That's our backbone. And I just want to see that we're sending our kids to college and to go on and become functional employees and good citizens. We're in the business of growing kids."

As 4-H youth livestock specialist, he is also a resource for the counties for educational programming. "We're trying to develop new programs, and it's my job to see that they get in place in different counties," he says.

One of the programs Faris hopes to establish is a three-day livestock school for kids. Currently, a half-day mini-camp is available, but it's not enough time to make a big difference in a youngster's project for that year, he says. "I'd like to see kids, maybe in their second year, bring an animal to this school, where we'll work with them on showmanship skills, and how to feed and groom the animal and different health practices - the entire spectrum on how to raise that project."

Livestock school also includes lessons in selection. "It's important to teach that in these schools, because the kids have to decide which animal will allow them to be the most competitive," Faris explains. "Then it goes into nutrition, and then we talk about health issues, vaccination programs, grooming. We're teaching them how to take care of animals across the spectrum of swine, goats, sheep and cattle. And we're teaching them quality assurance."

Selection is a critical lesson Faris says, "because ultimately we're trying to teach these kids what the livestock industry is all about. We should take to the show ring what we want in the industry. We want some aesthetic value in a show, but the industry standard must be there. Depth and body in a lamb are more important than aesthetics. You can't eat 'pretty.'"

That's just one of many important lessons that Faris believes youngsters learn in the show ring, but the most important ones have less to do with animal care than with character and maturity, he says. "A lot of people think showing is a kid showing an animal and being competitive, and that's all they're learning out of that project. But what we learn from livestock projects is so much more. Just teaching responsibility and time management is one thing. Then you're learning specific things about the animal, learning how to be comfortable around it, and about the industry itself - that as bad as we hate to see our named animals go to slaughter (we call it 'harvest' now) that that's the industry.

"We've got so many kids out there who don't know where their hamburger comes from, but that kid who shows a calf can tell you."

'How many kids are ready to stand up and give you reasons for decisions they've made? These kids can.'
He recalls his own particular rite of passage at age 6 when he was a show winner with his Southdown lamb Fred. As part of the carcass class competition, Fred was immediately taken to harvest, something the young Faris had to accept after a bit of back-and-forth discussion with his father and his weeping mother. "One of the things kids have to understand is what we're raising our projects for, but for most kids the lesson doesn't come at that young an age," he says.

Just as showing teaches life lessons, more are available to youngsters who take part in livestock judging. "Oftentimes kids are judging at the same time they're showing, and it can be a good balance," Faris says.

North Carolina youngsters ages 9 to 19 (or fourth grade through high school seniors) who are in 4-H or both 4-H and FFA can participate in livestock judging activities directed by Faris. (N.C. State's Dale Miller oversees collegiate livestock judging.)

"Generally what happens in judging is kids work with their coach, who may be their county Extension agent or 4-H volunteer, to learn how to judge the different livestock species," says Faris. Youngsters are taught to look at four animals and evaluate them in market and breeding classes.

In a market class, the placement is done according to the animals' muscle and confirmation, the two areas of primary concern in producing a meat product. "Then we have breeding class, where we have females or males of each species, and the kids evaluate which ones would be best in a commercial breeding operation, still looking at muscle and confirmation but also reproductive qualities, such as how deep-bodied a cow may be (for carrying a calf), the spacing and number of a swine's teats, the narrowness of hips of a female animal or the testicular development of a bull," says Faris.

"There's lots of things that you expose these kids to while we're training them to evaluate livestock, but we're really educating them on so much more about animals in general, in a healthy way."

However, the job is not finished once the animals have been placed in order of their quality. Then the young judges must get up in front of the officials and tell why they made their choices. "They have to give a one-to-two-minute delivery of reasons why they chose to place that class the way they did and defend their decisions," says Faris.

The judging officials listen for accuracy, Faris adds. "The kids don't have to place the animals exactly as we would to get a good reason score, as long as they evaluate properly and tell us the right reasons."

Faris says he'll often question the kids' decisions in an effort to encourage them to clearly defend their choices and articulate their reasons. "I'll push these kids to their limits. Even if they're right, I'll question them so they'll present reasons. I give them a hard time because I feel developing their confidence is as important as developing their decision-making."

'We can teach kids about animals and agriculture and their respective industries, while teaching them how to be good, productive employees and employers later on in life.'
Along with the confidence that comes from thinking on their feet, young judges learn to master the appropriate verbiage, Faris says. "In giving a set of reasons for their decisions, kids need to embellish and use correct terminology to show they know their stuff." That means they need to know that while steer is the term for castrated cattle, a castrated goat or lamb is a wether. They should be fluent in phrases such as "length of loin," "deeper through his twist" and "more capacious."

"It's a matter of expanding their vocabulary and using adjectives properly and honestly, using precise words as opposed to canned words to describe what a first place to fourth place animal should look like," Faris says.

"It's not just goats, cattle, sheep or pigs the kids are learning about. In this livestock contest, we're preparing them to stand up and take responsibility for the way they placed those animals and to be ready to defend that placement. How many kids can you think of that are 9, 10, 11, 12 years old that are ready to stand up in front of you and talk to you and give you reasons for decisions that they've made? These kids can."

As a result, Faris believes, some day, they'll be able to stand on their own two feet and tell a boss or colleague in a respectful way why they made a decision. "And that's the true picture of the youth livestock program," he says. "We can teach kids about animals and agriculture and their respective industries, while teaching them how to be good, productive employees and employers later on in life.

"Our main goal is to use animals to teach kids to become great adults who are responsible, who can communicate, make decisions and manage time, and who have values. People may look around and say, 'What is being done to make the leaders of tomorrow?'

"We're making them in the 4-H youth livestock program."

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