GONZALES — After Mitchell Miles, 17, of Dodson, finished putting his sheep and goats into their pens Saturday, he went to visit friends scattered around the big 4H building at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Gently cradled in his left arm was Rachel, a 3-week-old brown and white, floppy-eared goat that kept nibbling on his shirt.

“She is still on a bottle, so I had to bring her along because nobody’s at home,” Miles said.

Miles was one of hundreds of young people from across Louisiana who gathered for the week-long 78th annual LSU Agricultural Center Livestock Show.

LSU AgCenter officials said they expect from 3,000 to 5,000 4H and FFA students to bring approximately 1,500 breeding animals, 1,600 market animals, nearly 200 pens of broilers (chickens) and 700 exhibits of other birds and poultry. The event ends with an awards ceremony Feb. 16.

“These are the best and the brightest from across the state,” Dwayne Nunez, LSU AgCenter show manager, said. These participants got here by winning their events in seven regional competitions.

“Mitchell comes down from north Louisiana and participates in just about every opportunity he can,” Nunez said. “He’s a young man who has overcome a disability and does everything very well.”

Miles had a stroke as a child that affected the use of his right hand, his mother, Melinda Miles, explained, but that hasn’t hindered him at school and on their family’s farm.

“He’s been showing since he was so little, the goats were dragging him across the ring,” Melinda Miles said. “He also competes in Paralympics archery — he holds the bow with his left hand and the string in his teeth.”

Just about any 4H official or parent will tell you that the farm and ranch culture this event symbolizes is not just about the animals.

“The animals are the tools we use to develop these young people,” Nunez said as goats and sheep bleated from their pens. “It teaches them character, responsibility, sportsmanship, economics, they learn some animal science skills — they know that food doesn’t just come from the grocery store.”

The students buy their show animals at a young age and care for them every day, Nunez said. Some of these projects are up to a year long.

“They are responsible for the life of that animal which is totally different than football or baseball,” Nunez said. “It’s a 24-7 job for these kids.”

Unlike traditional high school sports, however, Nunez said, “you don’t have to be an athlete or a straight-A student, we provide opportunity for the kids to succeed who may not necessarily be able to succeed in other areas.”

Over in the Trademart building, the sound of clucking hens and crowing roosters nearly drowned out conversations among young people and parents unloading brightly plumed chickens from pet carriers into numbered, wire cages.

Ashton Landry, 15, a 4H and FFA member at Centerville High School in Franklin, was being helped by her mother, Kathy Landry, putting her three pairs of New Hampshire Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds into their cages.

This is Ashton’s first year, Kathy Landry said, and described it as “a backyard project.”

When asked why she raised chickens, Ashton smiled and replied, “it’s fun, I get to meet people and be with friends.”

“It’s a lot of work but she enjoys it,” Kathy Landry said. “As long as she does it, we’re going to support her. When she finishes her softball and dancing, the rest of her evening is taking care of her chickens.”

Out behind the 4H building, Mitchell Miles’ mother, Melinda, was getting more items from their pickup. Loud mooing from the nearby cow barns accentuated the rattling of diesel pickup engines and clatter of stock trailers.

“You can’t put a price tag on this because of the values that it teaches the kids — the closeness, the involvement of the families,” Melinda Miles, who is also an FFA adviser, said. “Mitchell has friends all over the state through this — from showing his lambs and his goats. It’s invaluable.”

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