Exploring the science of the lambs


Robert Rynarzewski grabbed a lamb from the group of five with their matching black faces, floppy ears and short, gray coats. He had her stand in the small barn at his home near Woodbine, and with a little coaxing she leaned forward and flexed her muscles, like a bodybuilder showing off the results of years of pumping iron.

Showing some muscle is important for animals being judged on their suitability for market, and this lamb's physique won her the title of grand champion in the Maryland State Fair's 4-H/FFA competition.

It was another in a string of state and county fair wins for Robert, 17. His two older sisters also have shown numerous champion lambs and swine. Although they are first-generation farmers, the family room of the Rynarzewskis' home is covered wall to wall with 27 green-and-white (and in a few cases purple-and-gold) banners for first- and second-place finishes.

Showing animals brings other rewards. "It helps you grow and have responsibilities," Robert said. "It shows people that they have special talents, and that hard work pays off."

Robert's parents, Karen, a dental hygienist, and Robert (known as Bob), a certified public accountant, grew up near Baltimore. After they were married, they lived in Catonsville for a while, then moved to Howard County because they wanted more space.

They had no plans to raise livestock.

But the Rynarzewskis' daughters participated in 4-H with craft projects and were inspired by friends who showed animals to try the same.

"I thought, why not, we'll try anything," said Karen Rynarzewski.

The family started in 1990 with two lambs and two pigs at their Colonial-style house on nearly 2 acres. They live on a cul-de-sac with several other homes in an area of farmland dotted with development.

"I grabbed my wallet and started doling out money," said Bob Rynarzewski. The family had a barn built, put up fencing, and bought equipment and feed. In time, they had another barn built. The sale of the animals plus the fair premium started to offset some of the costs.

At the family's peak, they had 18 lambs and 18 pigs. They started breeding their animals to produce future generations of fair champions - a process that takes place at a facility in Pennsylvania.

"We didn't go on vacation, we went to the fairs," said Bob Rynarzewski.

The animals required a big investment of time and effort as well.

"Usually around 6 in the morning, I get up and go down to the barn," said Robert. "I'll start by checking on everybody and making sure they are all right." Then he lets the animals out to exercise for a while. During the day, he makes sure they are comfortable and have water, and then he repeats the feeding and exercise routine at night.

"You can't really sleep in a whole lot," Robert said.

Influence of 4-H lauded

There have been some difficult times. One winter day, the family had to shovel 3 feet of snow off 300 feet of path to get to the barn. The children once got up at 3 a.m. to birth piglets and still went to school at 7 a.m. Robert's best lamb was disqualified from the county fair for failing to gain enough weight, even though she later won at the State Fair competition.

But there have been fun times, too, and the family believes making the investment required to raise animals was worthwhile.

"I'm appreciative as a father," said Bob Rynarzewski. "Both of my daughters are very self-sufficient, very successful. They can stand on their own as a result of 4-H."

Older daughter Heather, 23, became a physical therapist and practices in Towson. Younger daughter Megan was accepted to veterinary school at Virginia Polytechnic Institute last year at age 19.

Robert has embraced 4-H in many ways. This year, he raised a Hereford cow at a local farm and showed it at fairs in Kansas and South Dakota. He also competes in judging contests, in which participants are graded on how well they judge animals and deliver their opinions.

This year, Robert placed second in the senior division judging contest at the State Fair and returned Sept. 1 and 2 for additional competitions. He took first place overall and will join Maryland's team that will enter national contests in the fall, including the national 4-H livestock judging championships in Louisville, Ky.

4-H "has given him confidence," said Karen Rynarzewski. "It has taught [the children] a lot of things that prepare them for college and competition" - such as people, writing and organizational skills, and how to talk to the public, she said.

Robert maintains a 4.0 grade point average at Glenelg High School where, principal Linda Wise said, he "is committed to excelling in whatever he does."

Wise said 4-H is a popular activity at the school. Its robotics team, to which Robert belongs, was first runner-up at the State Fair, and three other Glenelg students placed in the top five in the livestock judging competition.

Robert also takes classes at Howard Community College. He is preparing to study mechanical and agricultural engineering, possibly at Kansas State.

A future flock

His parents say they will look after the animals while Robert is away. At least for a while.

"I've enjoyed [the animals]," Karen Rynarzewski said, "but there are other things I want to do with my life."

Robert feels otherwise. He said, "As soon as I get out of college, I plan to have a flock of 40 sheep."

His 2002 state champion lamb might join that future flock. Champions must be sold at the annual livestock auction, where this lamb went for $8 per pound, or $976. But Robert plans to breed her, so the buyer agreed to take another lamb in exchange.

Now he has another dilemma: "I should name her now that I get to keep her for 10 more years," he said.

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