Students visit field to assess soil types, available vegetation
By JOHN O'CONNELL
RIGBY, Idaho -- Shania Jensen has come to see a delicate habitat supporting wildlife and grazing animals where she formerly saw just "ugly sagebrush."
The Rigby High School junior and three teammates from the school's FFA chapter can now lay claim to reading such grazing landscape better than any other group of high school students in the country. The students placed first in the Fourth Annual Western National Range judging competition hosted Nov. 5-6 in the Idaho Falls area.
The event, featuring the top five teams from Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, rotates among the states and is supported by a USDA grant administered by University of Idaho's rangeland ecology program.
In assessing grazing land, Jensen explained brush size must be sufficient to provide forage and cover for sage grouse -- an increasingly important competition consideration due to the implications for the livestock industry of a possible endangered species listing. She said healthy grazing land also requires biodiversity and can't be overgrazed.
"If there's only sagebrush there, once that sagebrush is gone what's there to reseed it and keep the ecosystem going and keep animals there?" she said.
Also competing were FFA President Michael Hartwell, a senior; JW Hartwell, a sophomore; and Tucker Hancock, a freshman. The team barely placed in the top five at the state competition, Oct. 8-9 to make it to nationals. Members worked on weekends and after school to make the needed adjustments.
"We learned a lot at state what we were doing almost correct but not all the way," JW Hartwell said.
Ultimately, three of the students placed in the top 10 individually, and though only three scores were counted, any combination of their scores would have won.
For the national competition, the students were taken in groups to a Bureau of Land Management allotment in the Menan, Idaho, area and asked to assess the land's soil type, measure the aspect, check for biodiversity and noxious weeds and determine the parcel's suitability for grazing. They determined the plot hadn't been overgrazed and could support more livestock.
They were also tested on identification of 67 different plants -- indicating growth forms, place of origin, their water consumption, if they were poisonous and if they could support livestock or wildlife. Another exercise required the students to use advanced algebra to tabulate how much feed a hypothetical plot contained, as well as the cost for a grower to make suggested improvements to plant composition.
FFA advisers Robert Hale and Billie Jo Blackson coached the students. Hale said winning the competition will bode well on college and scholarship applications, and the students met several college program officials during the event.
"FFA is not just about preparing people to grow up and be on a farm. For me it's about leadership and preparing people so they can get a job when they grow up," Hale said, adding values of honesty and hard work are emphasized.
Both Hancock and Michael Hartwell believe skills they've learned in range judging will prove useful in their future careers. Hancock works for a local rancher "chasing cows and fixing fence." He sometimes gets to administer vaccinations and hopes to become a veterinarian. Hartwell eventually hopes to become a rancher.