Pirates' FFA diary evaluation team places 16th in the nation.
For Haley Mercer, a senior at Braden River High School, teddy bears have never been her cuddle buddy of choice.
Who needs a bear when you can get a cow?
“I like cows,” the 17-year-old said. “To me, they are my big, old teddy bears. They are the biggest babies. Most people would say they are really mean, but they aren’t. They’re really sweet.”
Mercer leases cattle from Myakka City's Dakin Dairy.
Because she is involved in Braden River High School’s Future Farmers of America program, she gets to keep her cattle on the school campus and then gets to visit them each day.
“I pick mine out when they are just 2 weeks old,” Mercer said. “I get to see them grow and bond, and I really like it.”
While Mercer thinks dairy cows are cute, she also knows a great deal about them.
Mercer, along with three other students — Harley Wade, a freshman at University of Florida, Hunter Fioretto, a freshman at the State College of Florida, and Michael Fioretto, a freshman at University of Florida — made up Braden River High’s dairy evaluation and selection team.
After taking first at the Future Farmers of America State Convention & Expo in February, the dairy evaluation and selection team qualified for the national competition in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I mean, 16th in the nation is a big deal. They deserve it — they worked hard.”
The national conference took place on Oct. 25-28, and out of the 44 teams competing from across the U.S., Braden River High School’s team finished 16th in the Dairy Evaluation and Selection competition.
Dairy evaluation and selection is where students evaluate the dairy cow's physical characteristics and determine if the animal meets industry standards.
“We have to choose the ideal cattle,” Hunter Fioretto said. “The utter is a big one — 40 points — so we look to see if it has strong attachments, which represents bloom capacity or how many pounds of milk they can produce.”
“We also look at the feet and legs and how well the cattle stands,” Haley Mercer said.
Megan Welch, the FFA advisor at Braden River High, was thrilled with the outcome at the national conference.
This was the first team Welch brought to nationals since she started working at Braden River High in 2015.
“I’m really proud of them,” Welch said. “I mean, 16th in the nation is a big deal. They deserve it — they worked hard.”
Over the summer, both Fioretto and Mercer practiced independently for the national conference.
Despite attending college and parting ways with his high school, Fioretto found time to prepare himself for nationals by competing in local dairy evaluating competitions over the summer.
“I wanted to impress my uncle, Chris Holcomb,” Fioretto said. “He actually won the national competition for 4-H."
Fioretto said he was disappointed her team finished 16th in the nation.
“I think I could have done better,” Fioretto said.
Mercer, on the other hand, was shocked that her team got 16th.
The nerves began to set in once she realized she was competing with other teams from all over the country.
“It was nerve wracking,” Mercer said. “Noticing all those other people from different states, I was nervous and I was surprised when we heard we got 16th. I knew I was going to slip up here and there, so getting 16th overall was a huge accomplishment.”