With university students off campus for spring break, legions of young and eager high school students descended on Lincoln University on Tuesday for FFA day.
The students — more than 900 — represented about 40 high schools around Missouri.
They visited the university for a day of learning, practicing and testing their knowledge in dozens of agriculture-related events.
Several hundred broke off from the main group and took buses early in the morning to Lincoln University's George Washington Carver Research Farm. It's normally used for research in plant, environmental and animal sciences, but the students used the land and neighboring farms to practice assessing dairy cattle, livestock and soil. Some also practiced competitions in forestry.
About 120 split into five groups and took tests assessing market hogs, market lambs, replacement ewes (used to enhance flocks), heifers and bulls.
Retired dairy specialist Barry Steevens helped prepare the dairy cow assessments. In those assessments, about 80 students stood in a semi-circle around groups of four cows and evaluated their physical characteristics.
To the untrained eye, the cows looked alike. But not to the assessors.
Within the groups of four cows, "I have one that stands out as pretty good," Steevens said. "(The students must) keep in mind what a dairy cow should look like."
Some of the cattle might have too much body fat or might not have ideal feet and legs, he said. Those animals are described as "over-conditioned."
Heather Luebbering, the Agriculture Club president at LU, said the students would judge the cows on which one looks the best and which one "does the best," or is likely the best milk producer.
In the United States, about 80 percent of milk cows are Holsteins, Steevens said. Those cows each produce about 23,000 pounds of milk a year. In the 1950s, he said, the average cow in the United States produced about 7,000 pounds of milk.
Nichols Career Center agriculture instructor Laura Apperson said her dairy team was excited to compete at LU after winning third place at their last competition.
Russellville FFA also was ready for the dairy competition, but it was especially geared up for the agriculture mechanics contest. Instructor Nathan Strobel said he hopes to take his mechanics and dairy teams to a successful state competition, but he said what is most important is students broadening their outlooks on career opportunities in agriculture.
Another 80 students began the day testing their knowledge in forestry, forestry tools and tree health. After about an hour and a half of written testing, the students walked a mile to a neighboring farm, where they took field tests. They had to show their knowledge in timber cruising — determining the volume and value of timber on a property — timber stand improvement, and other forestry issues.
Isaac Prenger, an 18-year-old Blair Oaks student, said he figured he'd be decent at forestry, considering his father has a sawmill and he has helped him assess tree stands.
To cruise a tree stand, "you have to judge the volume of its trees and the value of its woods," he said.
Blair Oaks began its FFA program this year, so many of the school's students are new to the practices, Prenger said. Some of the students have participated in two previous competitions. In his first, Prenger took second place in forestry. He took third in the second competition.
Blair Oaks instructor Jeff Sutter said he was excited to continue building the program. He hoped his students would use the opportunity to meet new people, potentially a future co-worker or business partner.
While 17-year-old Garrett Russell enjoys the competition, he has a loftier goal for forestry.
"I think it might help me," Russell said. "I want to go into conservation as a job."