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Kids explore farm and ranch life through NMSU Extension-supported programs

What do you get when you bus a few hundred school kids to a farm or ranch for a day of learning about the rural life and where our food comes from? You get the controlled chaos of county-based educational events variously known as "Ag Day," "Ranch Days" or "Kids, Kows and More."

Pete Walden, Grant County Extension agent, talks to Silver City students about brands and branding at Ranch Days, held annually at the McKeen Ranch near Glenwood. Nearly 500 students from Grant and Catron counties participated in the annual two-day event in late April 2011. (NMSU Photo by Jay Rodman.)

Such events, supported by the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service, with additional participation from a variety of agencies and organizations, have taken place in numerous New Mexico counties this spring, as they have for years.

The ones that are officially labeled "Kids, Kows and More" are sponsored in cooperation with the Southwest Dairy Farmers and are designed primarily for fourth and fifth graders. According to Rick Richardson, Extension 4-H youth development specialist and state coordinator of KKM, eighteen New Mexico counties currently host KKM programs, with most happening during April and May. Dona Ana County's KKM event took place at the Farm and Ranch Museum in Las Cruces on March 29.

"The main part of the program, of course, is the mobile dairy classroom, which is sponsored through Southwest Dairy Farmers," Richardson said in an interview at the spring event in Sierra County. "It is a milking parlor that is on the road, where they actually milk a cow." The classroom features Peach, a Holstein cow, and instructor Cody Lightfoot, who explains to the kids the importance of agriculture in all aspects of their lives and gives them a milking demonstration.

The broader KKM event includes educational demonstrations and displays on a range of topics that vary from year to year and county to county. "It's a series of stations that are set up where kids go on a rotation basis and are presented facts about agriculture and how it relates to their daily lives," Richardson said. The program reaches about 8,000 kids annually around the state.

The Sierra County KKM event, known to many as Ag Day, has been held at the Smith Farm near Cuchillo, northwest of Truth or Consequences, for about six years. Hosting the event were Cary Muncy, foreman of the ranch, and his wife, Shirley.

NMSU Extension agent Dee Wear was a key force behind Sierra County's Kids, Kows and More this year, as was Hot Springs High School agriscience teacher and FFA sponsor Nate Wolf. This is Wear's second year as an Extension agent and the second time he has been involved in the event. He said the event has a rich tradition in the county, providing a memorable experience for many students over the past decade and giving them a better appreciation of production agriculture.

"We invite the second and fifth graders from Truth or Consequences Elementary, all of Arrey Elementary, and even the private school, AppleTree Educational Center," Wear said. "We partner these students with FFA and 4-H students from Hot Springs High School, who tour them around all day and work with them as needed." He feels the mentoring relationship between the high school students and the younger ones is mutually beneficial.

The 350 young students who were bused in for the day rotated in groups from one demonstration or display to another every half hour. In addition to the mobile dairy, these included a horse-shoeing demonstration, a land stewardship presentation by a New Mexico Beef Council representative, information about such diverse topics as wildlife, pack mules and horses, mosquitoes, biosecurity, ice cream making and 4-H leadership - and even cowboy cooking. During the lunch hour, students alternated between eating and watching a calf-roping and simulated branding demonstration.

In Grant County, the official KKM event is held in the fall, but in the spring the Extension staff there collaborates with the Catron County Extension office on another educational event, Ranch Days, held at the McKeen Ranch. The ranch is situated along the San Francisco River about 70 miles northwest of Silver City and 30 miles south of Reserve, the Catron County seat.

Margie McKeen and her husband Hugh, a third-generation rancher and chair of the Catron County Commission, have hosted the event for thirteen years.

On the first of two program days, the ranch welcomed fifth graders from the Silver City district and second graders from the nearby Glenwood School. The following day, Catron County schools would be the main audience, along with students from three Silver City private schools (Guadalupe Montessori School, Calvary Christian Academy and Agape Christian School) and Catron County home-schoolers.

According to Margie McKeen, the total number of students for the two days was 488, with more than 100 adults attending with them.

NMSU participation in Ranch Days was robust, with five Grant and Catron Extension staffers and two from Las Cruces. "Ranch Days is a unique opportunity for Extension to teach both our public and private school students and teachers about local agriculture and the 'hows' and 'whys' of ranching," said Pete Walden, Grant County Extension director. "The collaboration between Grant and Catron Extension offices is only natural because the students and teachers are from both counties."

Walden staffed a table during the morning where he discussed brands and branding. This prepared students for his Catron County counterpart, Tracy Drummond, who provided play-by-play commentary and answered students' questions at the afternoon calf-branding demonstration.

Amy Star, Grant County 4-H agent, demonstrated horse equipment; Saundra Offutt, Grant County Extension program assistant, staffed the "Egg to Chick" display; Extension specialist Doug Cram discussed fire ecology and forest health; Extension specialist Stephen Gomez talked about wildlife and quizzed kids on recorded animal sounds; and Judy O'Loughlin, Grant County Extension home economist, demonstrated how to churn butter. In addition, Larry Foster, retired Extension livestock specialist, headed up the Dutch oven biscuit cooking operation, providing something tasty for students to pair with the freshly churned butter.

Additional stations included the mobile dairy classroom, an area for students to try their hand at roping and archery, a quilting exhibit, demonstrations about erosion, bee keeping and ATV safety, and USDA-sponsored demonstrations of a small cotton gin and bovine digestion. The latter station featured John Smith and a "cannulated" cow from the USDA Jornada Experimental Range near Las Cruces. Previously used in forage research, the live cow has a hand-size surgical opening into its digestive system that allowed students wearing plastic gloves to pull out samples of partially digested food.

"We are pleased that the Cooperative Extension Service is involved in these programs, along with the schools, other organizations, industry partners and the great people who open their farms up for the activities," said Jon Boren, associate dean of NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and director of Extension. "CES has always recognized the value of educating both urban and rural youth in the importance of agriculture and its impact on their daily lives. There is no better way to learn about it than getting out on a farm or ranch and having a close-up, hands-on experience."