By JOHN O'CONNELL
POCATELLO, Idaho -- Until recently, it wasn't practical for Bannock County urban youths such as Heidi Robertson to raise a 4-H calf.
Despite her city address, Robertson will show her second calf later this summer at the North Bannock County Fair, thanks to a unique program called Bucket Calves.
In its second year, the program, supported by a $20,000 Fred Meyer grant, provides city kids their own calves, along with free stalls at the Bannock County Fairgrounds.
While 18 city children waited to receive their calves on June 19, Robertson explained the right way to take an animal's temperature, and the importance of thoroughly cleaning rectal thermometers. Though her calf was sometimes stubborn and difficult to walk, Robertson always rose early last summer, eager to get to work.
"I've always wanted to be a veterinarian, but seeing more larger livestock has kind of changed my opinion," Robertson said. "I want to be a larger livestock vet instead of like a dog or cat."
Bannock County modeled its program after Cattle Kids, started five years ago for Blackfoot city children. American Falls cattle supplier Kerry Ward provides grain, milk replacer and calves for both programs, buying the fattened animals back at the end to resell to Midwestern feedlots.
He pays the children $200-$250 to serve as custom feeders. Ward has been pleased by the weight gain and careful attention the kids have given the calves.
"It gives the kids an opportunity to know what we have to do to make a dollar, and most years we don't make a dollar," Ward said.
Billie Jo Hill, a mother of two daughters participating in the Bannock County program for the second year, said her girls learned responsibility and earned money to buy new cowboy boots.
"You have to be here twice a day to clean up their stalls and make sure they're healthy and eating, and pretty much be the calve's mom," Hill said.
Participants tend to their calves from June 19 through Aug. 18 and pay a $50 fee toward program costs. Ashley Tolman, Bannock County's 4-H assistant and chairwoman over the Bucket Calf program, said the grant, which covers bedding and supplies, is running out, and the county is seeking other donors to keep it running.
Scott Nash, University of Idaho's Bingham County Extension educator over 4-H and livestock, said 4-H leaders attending an October 2012 national conference expressed great interest when he made a presentation about the program he helped start.
Volunteers run the Blackfoot program, and private sponsors support it. Bingham County Commissioner Ladd Carter, a farmer, donates supplemental hay and straw.
Cattle Kids was started at the suggestion of Neil Anderson, a Blackfoot state representative and one of the program's sponsors. He's heard stories of children addicted to video games eager to get up in the morning and tend to their calves, and parents and children who were drifting apart brought closer together.
"You'll see mothers shoveling cow manure, and they wouldn't have been caught dead in a stall before. Kids will invite sponsors to come see their calves. I had the vice president of Basic American Foods emailing a 9-year-old girl back and forth," Anderson said. "I don't know of anything else I've done in my life that's brought so many moving comments to the positive from parents and kids."