While the younger children petted and talked to the lambs, hogs and goats trotting around in pens at the Howard County Fairgrounds, older 4-H participants measured, prodded and squeezed the animals, regarding them with analytical eyes.
A good market lamb "has to be between 50 and 60 pounds ... with a neck real skinny and long," said Karen Vanisko, 9, of Ellicott City.
What about the lamb's backside? asked her aunt.
"You want it to be square," Karen said.
She thought she had found a contender in the first lamb to be auctioned, bidding up to $150. She looked around the crowded bleachers for someone else to bid and looked at her mother with a huge smile as the auctioneer shouted "sold" and pointed at her.
She and her family trucked home that lamb and another she bought last week to begin the annual ritual of buying, raising, showing and selling that has defined the 4-H animal science program for generations.
The auction was one of several this month around the state that offer 4-H participants a chance to buy the animals they will care for over the next few months. The young people also must train their animals to behave in the show ring as they prepare to compete in local shows, county fairs and, for some, state and national competitions.
In market shows, the animals are judged by what kind of meal they will produce. Each year, a few female animals are kept for breeding programs, but most will be auctioned for food at the end of the summer.
Most county fairs in Maryland include 4-H auctions during which friends, businesses and neighbors offer generous sums for the meat. Average prices reach about $300 for a lamb and $625 for a hog, with champions sometimes selling for more than $10 a pound.
Successful 4-H competitors can fund their future projects and make money for college or other expenses.
The youths must decide which animals look as if they will grow to have the desired combination of size, muscle and shape.
"The kids understand these are market animals," said Karen's mother, Alicia Vanisko. "They can identify the cuts of meat."
Information on choosing a good animal is available in resource books provided by 4-H clubs and at workshops during the winter. Young people also rely on advice from parents who were in 4-H, grandparents with farm experience and family friends who know the animal business.
Courtney Ridgely said her daughter, McKenzie, 9, paid close attention in livestock judging classes last year, in addition to asking her father and grandfather for advice.
"Last year, she just went with which was the prettiest, and she didn't do very well," said Ridgely, who, with her family, lives in Union Bridge. This year, McKenzie had money from the sale of her animals last year and was allowed to buy any animals that fit her budget.
"It's all about taking ownership of her project and feeling that pride," Ridgely said.
Last year in Maryland, 10,904 animal science projects were completed by 4-H participants. They included raising market animals, taking part in veterinary science projects and companion-animal activities. Many young people take part in more than one project in a year.
The number of 4-H participants in traditional animal science projects has risen slightly since 2000, said Willard Lemaster, a state 4-H animal science extension specialist with the University of Maryland. But "there has been a transition in terms of where those numbers are," he said.
Fewer young people are choosing large-animal projects, particularly dairy cattle, which are dwindling in Maryland. Projects requiring less space and money - including sheep, pigs and meat goats - are taking their place.
Those programs also take less time, Lemaster said. Young people begin caring for beef steers in the fall, but sheep, pigs and goats bought in April are largely gone by September.
Separate from the market-based projects, equine, rabbit and dog projects also are popular, Lemaster said.
Despite all the advice, it can be difficult to pick a winner early in the season.
"An average pig can come on in the end, and a really good pig can fall apart," said Dustin Bresnock, 17, of Mount Airy.
He said that in 1999, he bought a less-than-impressive pig for $80 at the Howard County auction and it went on to win the grand champion title at the Howard County Fair.
Young people also have to consider financial implications.
For their benefit, and as part of an extensive recordkeeping element that is part of the 4-H project, the owners want to make a profit at the end of the season.
"They have to take the cost of the animal and the feed and subtract that from the check they'll get at the end of the fair," said Connie Khademi of Clarksville, who has four children in the 4-H program. "It's their money, so they get to decide."
Her son, Darius, 9, was disappointed when he saw that the pig he wanted went for $620, well above his budget. He bought one for $375.
Sarah Khademi, 13, missed out on a hog that went for $395, but she got another for $175.
She acknowledged that her selection method was not scientific.
"I just pick how cute they are," she said.
But more often, the 4-H'ers follow their heads along with their hearts, as Karen Vanisko did with her lambs.
Having bid successfully, she said she planned to take her lambs home and get them settled in her barn, and that she hoped they would get used to sharing space with chickens.
She had chosen names for the lambs - Leia and Chewy - that were inspired by the Star Wars movies.