Livestock Chains (5/3/2019)

A livestock chain is (was):

  1. A special chain halter used to control unruly livestock when showing them.
  2. A pen pal type of program where FFA members in one chapter wrote letters describing their livestock projects to members in another chapter and vice versa.
  3. A chain (similar to an FFA degree chain some state FFA officers wear just below their jacket) that was popular in the 1950s which featured different livestock charms that students were raising for their SAE program.
  4. The chain worn around the neck of registered livestock to which an identification tag is attached.
  5. None of the above.

The correct answer will become apparent as you read this Footnote.

As a freshman in the Lampasas (TX) High School FFA, I learned the Star Greenhand received the chapter sheep flock to keep for a year. I was fortunate to be selected as the Star Greenhand and took possession of the 20 head of purebred Debouillet sheep (1 ram, 19 ewes). After one year I returned the sheep flock plus two ewe lambs back to the chapter for the next Star Greenhand. I kept all the lambs born during the year except for the two ewe lambs. This helped get me established in the sheep business.

About 50 miles from Lampasas something similar happened. The following account comes from The Berkshire News (1955, May, p. 3):

Arthur Muntz of Moody, Texas has presented registered Berkshire gilts weighing approximately 100 pounds to three members of Bell County (Texas) 4-H clubs…The purpose of the donation by Mr. Muntz is to start a gilt chain in Bell County for boys interested in raising registered hogs. The chain requires each boy to return two gilts to the 4-H clubs of the county from their gilt’s first litter. This program will require each club boy to stay in the hog business at least one year, and in that time, it is thought that he can probably learn enough about it to want to stay in the hog business. Another requirement the receivers of the gilts will have to fulfill is that of keeping accurate records on the animals to see just exactly what happened during the entire project. The administration of the requirements will be the responsibility of the County Agent’s office.

A livestock chain was an educational program where students received livestock, cared for them for a period of time, and then returned the livestock but kept most of the offspring or kept the livestock and returned some of the offspring to the organization. Livestock chains were very popular in the 1940-1960 era (but there are still some in operation today). This program was designed to help students get established in livestock farming but was also instrumental in improving the quality of livestock being raised in a community.

4-H clubs and the FFA and NFA were active participants in livestock chain programs. In 1965, 4,286 FFA chapters operated livestock chains (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1965, p. 53). In addition to sheep and gilt chains, there were also poultry chains, dairy calf chains, beef heifer chains and bull programs.

Support for the livestock chains came from a variety of sources and were found throughout the country. Some 4-H clubs and FFA chapters raised the money to support the activity but more often livestock breeders, civic clubs, breed associations, alumni and other club supporters, and notably the Sears-Roebuck Foundation provided animals and funding to support the livestock chains.

Following are samples of the operation of the various livestock chains.

Poultry Chains

In 1956 (April 13) the Pulaski (VA) Southwest Times reported on the start of the Sears-Roebuck Foundation Poultry Chain in the county. Ten 4-H club members received 100 White Leghorn chicks. The members were to return 12 of the chickens to be auctioned off with the proceeds going back into the program to provide chickens to more youth. Eighty dollars in prize money was to be awarded by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation to the 4-Hers who did the best job of raising their chicks.

The September 1949 issue of the National 4-H News described the poultry chain in Connecticut. In the spring of 1948, a poultry chain with 72 members raising 7,000 pullets was stared with support from the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. Ten selected pullets from each flock were to be shown at the state fair and sold with the proceeds being used to buy more chicks for the next year.

H. W. Bennett described the operation of the Georgia 4-H Poultry Chain in a 1954 presentation at the national meeting of the Poultry Science Association. He stated that the program in Georgia started in 1945 in eight counties and was sponsored by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. It was now (in 1954) found in 110 counties. About the time the 4-Hers are to receive their chicks, the extension agents conduct a “poultry school” for 4-H members and their parents. They learn about poultry management from university extension specialists. When the birds are six months old, there is a poultry show in each county where each member exhibits six birds for judging. Prize money and ribbons are awarded. Bennett concluded that (1955, p. 1230):

This project has certainly had its effect in increasing the number of commercial egg flocks from 460 flocks 11 years ago, to approximately 3100 today in the State of Georgia. It has had its effect in raising the average egg production per hen more than 50 eggs per bird. It has literally taught thousands of 4-H club members the pride of ownership for the first time in their lives. It has been the means by which many boys and girls have received college educations.

Dairy Calf Chains

In 1950 four dairy heifers were purchased in West Virginia and were delivered to FFA members in the Spencer and Charleston Federations. These calves were the first of approximately thirty-six heifers that were to be purchased for FFA members throughout the state during the first two years of the program. FFA members securing calves raised the heifer according to approved practices and bred the heifer to a proven sire. The first heifer calf dropped was returned to the West Virginia Association of the FFA. The calf was then given to another FFA member and the cow became the property of the FFA member raising the animal (this news item was reported in the Kansas Future Farmer, Vol 21, No. 5, April 1950, p. 11). The program was funded by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation who had sponsored 350 dairy calf chains by 1957. 

The August 1949 issue of The Rotarian reported that seven Brewton, Alabama Rotary members had purchased purebred dairy heifers to start a 4-H dairy calf chain.

The Denmark (WI) FFA Alumni established a dairy calf chain in the 1980s. A dairy calf is given to an FFA member. When the calf matures into a cow, her first heifer calf was given to another FFA member. By 1988 five calves had been produced for the chain. (The National Future Farmer, February-March 1988).

The Keystone Farmer magazine in 1966 reported that 50 members had received Dairy Chain calves. I don’t know if this was for one FFA chapter or the entire state.

In addition to dairy calf chains, there were also beef heifer chains. The Rotarian magazine reports that Rotary Club Members in Marble Falls, TX (1956) and Macon, Missouri (1969) were involved in establishing beef heifer chains. 

Gilt (pig) Chains

An article titled “Pig Chain” appeared in the Spring 1954 issue of the National Future Farmer and detailed how the pig chain operated in western Tennessee. The Dyersburg FFA was one of 15 chapters in west Tennessee to receive five gilts and a boar from the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. Since Durocs were already well established in the area, the chapter decided to diversify by breeding Chester Whites. Five rules were established for the boys who wanted to participate in the program. A committee of three students and the agriculture teacher visited the farms of all the boys who applied for a gilt to make sure they met the qualifications that had been established and then selected who would get the gilts. After the gilts were placed, the student committee and agriculture teacher made monthly visits to insure the gilts were being properly cared for. One stipulation was that the gilts were exhibited at a district fair. Each of the five boy returned two gilts to the FFA chapter. Five of the gilts were given to other Dyersburg FFA members. Agriculture teacher Reed (1954, p. 52) reported that “The other five gilts will be given to the Negro vo-ag program at Bruce High School, also located in Dyersburg, so the New Farmers can try their luck with Grand Champion Stock.”

In 1950, Mineral Springs, Arkansas FFA members had to write an essay titled “Care of a Gilt from Eight Weeks of Age Until She Has Pigs of That Age” in order to obtain a gilt in their pig chain (Young, 2017, p. 3A).

It has been estimated that 5,000 boys got started annually in the hog business in the southern states through the Sears Pig Chain program (Sears Official Honored, 1955, p. 8). In 1960, Sears had 1,253 swine programs in operation all across the country.

The 1959 North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service Annual Report for Animal Husbandry provides an interesting insight into the 4-H pig chain program. Sixty-two of the 100 counties in North Carolina had active pig chains. The report indicated that five counties had “Negro Pig Chains.” A map of the state showed in which counties pig chains operated and was color-coded to show who sponsored the pig chains. The four groupings of sponsors were Sears, FCX (Farmers Cooperative Exchange), Civic Clubs, and Other Groups.

Perhaps the “Grand Champion” livestock chain FFA chapter was the Montevideo FFA Chapter in Penn Laird, Virginia. They operated FIVE different purebred livestock chains. This chapter established a chapter Foundation in 1963 to support their livestock chains. During the 1966-67 school year, they had dairy (Holstein and Guernsey), beef, sheep (Suffolk) and swine (Yorkshire and Hampshire) chains in operation. The chapter had 68 registered animals in the various chains (Can Chapter Boosters Be Organized, 1967).

The Bull Program

In the fall of 1946, the Sears-Roebuck Foundation started a bull program. A carload of 50 purebred Hereford bull calves from the Mill Iron Ranch in Texas was shipped to North Carolina and distributed to 50 FFA and NFA chapters (Hurford, 1962). The bulls were given to FFA & NFA chapters with the understanding that the bulls would be available for service on a community basis. The bulls were made available to FFA members and farmers in the community. In practice, the bulls were taken from farm to farm. Some chapters charged a small maintenance fee to cover the expenses.

This bull program expanded to include 10 southern states and 1,500 FFA and NFA chapters by 1957 (Hurford, 1962). In 1973 48 FFA chapters in Alabama were involved in the bull program. As the program grew, cattle breeders in each state provided various breeds of bulls. An example of this was reported in the Alabama Future Farmer in February-March 1962. The  headlines were “Dr. J. J. Hicks Donates Fifteen Bulls to the FFA.” A group of agriculture teachers selected the 15 Angus Bulls. The bulls were to be placed in local communities for the three years and then sold with $250 of the sale money going back to the state association to be used with the bull program. The article indicates (p. 7):

In the community, the bull serves a two-fold purpose. They are examples of results possible in livestock growing when recommended practices are followed. More important, they give cattlemen access to a bull that will improve the quality of their beef herds through the use of a top-purebred sire. The FFA chapter makes this service available to farmers for free or at a nominal cost to cover the expenses. At the end of the year, the breeding records for the bulls are judged and Sears Roebuck donates registered heifers to the chapters with the best records.

The total number of bulls Hicks donated to the FFA grew to over 50. It was estimated that $10 was added to the value of each of the calves by using the quality bulls. Over 1,200 bulls were distributed in the program.

Concluding Remarks

Creating this Friday Footnote was like trying to assemble a 1,000-piece picture puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. There are snippets of information about livestock chains in a variety of breed association publications, state FFA magazines, the National Future Farmer, civic organization publications, etc. but I was not able to find a synthesis of the information in any one place. Perhaps someone has written a thesis or paper about the livestock chains, but I didn’t find it. This bit of our history might be something the profession should document in a more comprehensive manner.

There are livestock chains in operation today. The University of Arkansas has an extension publication on Poultry Chains. There is a 4-H Poultry Chain in Monroe County, Tennessee. I found a 2017 advertisement for a Poultry Chain auction in Mississippi.
The livestock chains were an important part of our history and have helped thousands of young people to earn money, learn about being responsible, and to become established in an agricultural career. I know my sheep flock helped propel me to earn my American FFA degree. Perhaps it is time to consider revitalizing livestock chains or even creating plant chains where students care for a plant and then produce additional plantings through various propagation techniques.

If you have experience, as a student or teacher, with a livestock chain, I would encourage you to share your experiences with the profession.


Bennett, H. W. (1955). How the 4-H Poultry Chain Functions in Georgia. Poultry Science, Volume 34, Issue 5.

Can Chapter Boosters Be Organized? (1967, June-July). The National Future Farmer. Volume 15, Number 5.

FFA Convention Proceedings, 1965.

Hurford, D. (1962). The Sears-Roebuck Foundation, A Business History of the Sears, Roebuck Public Relations Program, 1950-1960. Master’s Thesis. University of Southern California.

Muntz Starts Texas Berk Chain. (1955, May). The Berkshire News. Vol. 20. No. 7, page 3.

Reed, S. (1954, Spring). Pig Chain. The National Future Farmer. Volume 2, Number 3.

Sears Official Honored (1955, April-May). The Alabama Future Farmer. Volume 24, Number 5.

Sears Report on Bulls (1957, August). The Florida Cattleman and Livestock Journal. Volume 21, Number 11. P. 33

Sears-Roebuck and the FFA Bull Program (1973, March-April). The Alabama FFA Reporter. Volume 2, Number 4.

Young, P. (2017). Early Files – 67 years ago. The Nashville News-Leader