Showing livestock.

I recently mentioned my livestock showing days in a post and several people asked to read more about that.  {I did post about it once – here.}  It was a very big part of my upbringing, so it does seem important to document it in this space.  Both nature and nurture have a love for agriculture in my blood and personal history, and it’s a little surprising to me that I actually prefer to live in the city.  My dad was a cowboy, my mom has always loved and lived a rural life, and my stepdad too.  I appreciate and am very thankful that I grew up on a ranch/farm, even if I don’t feel drawn to living on one as an adult.  I recognize all of the opportunities and experiences I took for granted growing up, and if I had it to do over again, I’d want my childhood and teen years to be in the same setting.

As a bit of background, I was in 4-H from age nine to eighteen, and I was in FFA from around age twelve to eighteen.  Through 4-H I participated in many projects outside of raising animals (baking, leathercraft, range management, crochet, sewing…to name a few) and held many leadership positions on the club, county, and state level (well, only one on the state level – I was a state ambassador one year).  I joined FFA through school in 7th grade and participated in contests like parliamentary procedure, Creed, quiz, judging contests (wool and horticultural produce were probably my favorites), public speaking, etc.  There were 4-H and FFA state wide conferences and contests each year, which were always so much fun because they were an opportunity to compete in these contests and see friends from around the state.

So showing animals.  Most teenagers are expected to get some kind of summer job, I think, and my summer job was always my show animals.  Through the nine years of showing, I showed heifers, pigs, steers, and lambs, never all in the same year and some (lambs) only once.  Pigs were my favorite because they’re cute, smart, and have such great personalities.  Heifers were a pain (very temperamental) and I only showed them two years.  I had some beginners luck (and by luck I mean that I had a very knowledgeable ag teacher who provided guidance every step of the way) with my first lamb, winning my class at state fair, but overall lambs weren’t my thing.  Steers kind of scared me (they usually weigh between 1200 and 1500 pounds and I was just…easily scared, I guess), but they were the biggest money maker because we would show the steers that were born on our ranch, so we didn’t have to buy them from other breeders (one of the biggest – if not THE biggest – expense when it comes to showing animals).  We’d buy the pigs and lambs from breeders around the state and/or country.  The show season began in the spring when we would buy and start working with the animals and it lasted through early fall with State Fair in September.

Since pigs and steers were the main species I showed, that’s what I’ll talk about here.  Our days during the summer were very predictable.  We’d be outside by 5:00 AM to start chores.  First, we’d feed the steers.  While they were eating we’d walk the pigs out in the pasture (maybe a half a mile walk or so?  Not sure.).  When I say we’d walk the pigs, you may imagine it to be like walking a dog.  But the pigs weren’t on leashes; we’d just walk behind them and direct them down a dirt road.

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^ Walking the pigs one evening. ^

Within a few days, they knew the routine.  The pigs knew that when they reached a certain spot they could turn around and run home and their breakfast would be waiting for them.  (My stepdad would put out their food while my mom, sister, and I walked the pigs.)  We had a really nice barn for our animals (my stepdad designed and built it, with my mom, sister, and me serving as his top-notch labor crew) with individual feeding stations in the wash rack for each animal.  The first few times we’d feed there, Dale would direct each pig into the correct station (they all had customized food portions based on how much weight we needed them to gain – my stepdad was very scientific about the whole thing), but within three days they would all know which station to go to automatically.  I’m telling you – pigs are smart!  (We did have one poor Chester – breed of pig that is white in color with floppy ears – named Guess who would always have to be directed into his station.  I think his ears were just unusually big and he couldn’t see clearly to count gates.  He was one of my all time favorite pigs through the years.)  While the pigs ate, Lisa and I would clean up their pens (shovel up the poo and use a rake to even out the dirt because pigs tend use their noses to burrow and create little ruts).  After the pigs ate they’d go back into their pens for the day.  Their pens were probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet long, and we’d usually have two or three pigs in each pen, so they had plenty of room to laze about.  Dale ran water lines to each pen and hooked up little self-watering stations in each pen, so they could drink water by pressing their snouts up against little metal nozzle whenever they needed it through the day.  This was an especially nice system because the water was there automatically and we didn’t have to leave a bucket in the pen, which the pigs would inevitably play in, lay in, and turn into a big bowl of mud.  We’d come out periodically during the day and lightly spray down the top layer of dirt in their pens so that it stayed cool.  The barn was covered, of course, and we had this huge, thick mesh cloth type thing hanging over the open sections at the front gate of each pen to keep the sun from getting into the pen.  This kept it cooler and it protected the pigs from getting sunburnt.

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^ Reading what appears to be a Sweet Valley High book at the county fair.  The pig is obviously enthralled with whatever shenanigans the Wakefield twins are into. ^

So that’s the pigs.  The steers would be done eating by the time we’d put the pigs away in the morning, so we’d put their halters on them and take them over to the wash area and hose them down.  Then we’d comb and brush their hair and blow it dry with big blowers.  The objective with this twice daily routine (we’d do the same thing in the evening) was to both grow the hair and train the hair.  When a calf has good hair, you can utilize that hair when you clip the calf.  It can add inches to their back or butt (a good thing in a show calf) and it makes them look really nice so the judge picks them to win.  Of course that’s not the only thing that matters – the judge would feel along the calf’s rib cage area for “finish” (fat).

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^ Champion Charlais at the State Fair. ^

After their bathing and grooming, we’d put the steers in what we called the cool room.  It was this insulated, dark room that had an air conditioner and a few fans.  The steers would be tied up in the room all day and it would keep them cool (again, to help them grow hair).  They lived the life of luxury alright – just lying there in a nice dark, cool room, chewing their cud and napping.  One of us had to always be home every day to check on the steers, offer them a bucket of water a few times, shovel up the manure, and most importantly, make sure the air conditioner and fans kept running.  Because the room was insulated and it was so hot outside, it would have been detrimental to their well being if a breaker blew and they were left in that room during the heat of the day.

The evening routine was basically the same – walking pigs, grooming steers, feeding each.  We wouldn’t get started until 8:00 or so because that’s when it would finally be cooling down.  Rainy evenings were always a treat because we didn’t have to rinse and blow dry the steers (the rain water was good for their hair so we’d just take their halters off, feed them, and let them run around and play in the rain).

This routine and schedule helped us take care of the animals the best way we knew how and get them ready for the fairs.  The goal was to make the sale at the fair (usually the top two in each class made the sale and lower placings could “pull” in if those people decided not to sell that animal) and get to sell the animal in a premium sale.  The buyers were usually local businesses and groups of individuals (sometimes called buyers clubs) who had pooled their money to buy animals and support the youth.  The money I made was put into a savings account, and I was able to graduate from college debt free because of my earnings.  It was hard work through the summer but fun and pretty awesome as far as summer jobs go!

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^ Sale photo from 1999.  ^

Of course, I didn’t always like raising show animals.  In fact, there were times when I couldn’t wait to graduate and get away from it.  But I am so appreciative of the experience and what I learned (responsibility, recordkeeping, compassion, patience, work ethic, being a good winner and a good loser, etc.).  Most of all, I’m glad that I had that time with my family.  Day in and day out, we were at the barn together, working and caring for other living beings.  That’s a pretty dang good way to grow up.

Is there something from your childhood/younger years that you didn’t love at the time but can appreciate now? 

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9 thoughts on “Showing livestock.

  1. Oh wow, I had no idea! What an interesting way to grow up!!
    There was a time that I didn’t enjoy practicing piano and my parents had to force me to practice… I grew to love it, but there was a few years that I just thought of it as work. Now? I’m obsessed, and I’m using my background to work from home. :)

  2. It wasn’t staged, She read with the pigs all of the time, “I am working with the pigs, a chance to read.” How about those rockies, too?

  3. What a lot of work! I know little about the raising of pigs and steer, this was such an interesting post Amy! How amazing that you were able to finance your education with raising and showing livestock.
    Also, I love your new header photo! You guys are the cutest.

  4. WOW! Those pigs and steers had it made! What a neat way to grow up! Very different from this Florida girl. 😉 All I had to take care of was a dog. Were you guys ever able to go on vacation?

  5. Ahhh! I love your new header photo!! Absolutely precious!

    Christopher was involved in 4H & FFA! You guys will have so much to talk about when we all get together someday. :)

    Adorable Amy reading with the pig! I love that shot. How sweet. So I don’t remember a lot of it, but when I was little my family lived out on a lot of land in East TN and my dad decided that we should have pigs, cows, and chickens one year! So I have these photos of me as a kid (maybe around 5-6 or so?) sitting out in a field with the piggies! They are pretty adorable! :) {side note: I loved Sweet Valley & the Wakefield twins!}

    Wow! Those steers were living the life! I learned so much from all of this. I had no idea how important their hair was in showing.

    So amazing that your savings from this are what made you be able to graduate from college debt free. That’s awesome!

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