Image: Daniel Kramer

A person can learn a lot on the animal scene—just ask Ava Pluchino.

A regular among the stock show set since seventh grade, the 16-year-old has firsthand experience bringing up broilers (a chicken bred for meat production), understands the intricacies of readying goats for the ring, and endeavored for the first time this year to try her hand at heifers. Amid a show season that has proven anything but ordinary, however, she’s honed all sorts of new skills. Time management proved important early into the pandemic, as feed stores closed earlier, restrictions made accessing the barn more difficult, and resources were altogether harder to come by.

As the pandemic continued and Spring Branch FFA made adjustments, scheduling skills in general proved crucial.

The barn Ava and her fellow FFA members use is shared by about seven high schools, and at the beginning there was no intermixing. Later, with help from an app that allowed users to pick up pre-determined “shifts,” students booked times to feed, clean, and train their animals both before and after class.

On Ava’s current schedule, she visits Betsy, the off-white heifer often motivated by a good meal, for about 20 minutes first thing in the morning. Once school lets out, she travels the 15 or so minutes back to the barn, where she devotes time to feeding, cleaning, bathing and walking her, and tending to other tasks.

The scheduling arrangement helps not only to keep students safe, she explained, but to keep things efficient and orderly, too. “It’s a good system because no one wants to be on a time crunch,” the Stratford High School junior explains. “It regulated who was at the barn, and when.”

In the event that someone did test positive for Covid-19—something Ava says luckily didn’t happen often or on a large scale—it also made it easier to determine who needed to isolate.

Image: Daniel Kramer

Of course, the pandemic brought lessons away from the barn, too. As vice president of her FFA chapter, Ava has responsibilities that include helping to run meetings. And that means finding ways to keep a whole group of high schoolers engaged and entertained online. “We’ve incorporated games into Zoom, putting ‘I Spies’ or word searches on the screen,” she says. “It’s been a bit of a challenge, but we’ve figured it out.”

With the 2021 Houston Livestock Show just around the corner, Ava noted that even the nervous feelings are different this year. In addition to exhibitors’ typical worries, there’s the stress of knowing a positive Covid test could pull one’s chances of showing at all. As for her, the goal is simple: To keep moving forward, push herself a bit harder, and, she hopes, achieve a positive outcome.

Ava didn’t grow up raising animals—she and her family decided to go for it abruptly back when she was in seventh grade, when she started small by raising broilers—but the pastime has quickly become a passion. And obstacles or not, it’s all worth it.

“Despite Covid, it’s been a good experience,” she says. “I’d much rather have restrictions put on me than to have no show and sale, or no animal at all. The best thing we can do is to stay positive through all of it.”

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