The foundation events for county fairs all across the country are their livestock shows. Although a lower percentage of the population is involved in agriculture today than in generations past, livestock barns still draw enthusiastic crowds of spectators, and the Webster County Fair is consistently one of the top fairs in the area for livestock exhibits.
For those bringing animals to one of the various shows, which include beef, dairy, sheep, goats (dairy and meat), poultry and — new for 2016 — rabbits, the fair is the culmination of a long process, involving many steps and a long learning curve.
“First, they’ve got to select the animal they’re going to buy,” said Kyle Whittaker, ag educator at Marshfield High School and superintendent of the beef, meat goat and bottle calf shows at the Washington County Fair, which runs July 20-23. “Unless they’ve already got cattle and they’re going to raise one. But most likely, for people who are just getting started, that’s not the case. That’s where ag ed, FFA and 4-H come into play, because it can teach those kids some good selection techniques. Even the average farmer out here who is just producing feeder calves and taking them to Buffalo, Lebanon or Springfield (to sell), the first decision they make is the selection decision. ‘These are the two animals I’ve purchased to mate as parents, and I’m hoping the offspring is what I want.’
“The next thing they’ve got to do, if they’re going to show an animal in a fair, is break it to lead, if it’s a beef or dairy animal, and work with it so they can handle it in the show ring. I’m sure some people spend more time at it than others, but that’s a time-consuming process. Most of the work done when showing an animal is done at home, long before the fair itself.”
Exhibitors also have to learn to take care of their animal from a nutrition standpoint. They need to know how much or what type of feed to feed the animal to reach the weight and condition they need to be in for the show.
“Sometimes in a show, you’ll hear a judge refer to a heifer or bull as being really ‘fresh,’” Whittaker said. “It has to do with their condition, meaning the animal’s been fed properly — they’re neither too thin nor overly fat.
“There’s also the need to take care of the animal from a health standpoint, and make sure they don’t get any internal or external parasites, because they have to have a health certificate from a veterinarian to exhibit. If your animal gets warts or ringworm, he’s out; he can’t show.”
Grooming also comes into play. Some people get into that a whole lot more than others. Some who show beef cattle wash them ever day or every other day, rinse them twice a day, then blow-dry the hair, because they want to get that hair to look a certain way.
“One of the things that really attract people to showing livestock is that it’s such a family activity,” said Whittaker. “Even though the parents won’t be in the ring with the kids, they can still help before and after.”
Often, the involvement of the kids showing livestock will coincide with their family’s livestock business.
The family of Jeremy and Joni Day, located just northwest of Marshfield, is a perfect illustration. The Days have three children, 5-year-old Hollis, 4-year-old Hadley and 2-year-old Harper. The kids are showing lambs for the first time this summer, and the Days went into the sheep business at least partly for that purpose.
“We got our first lambs a year ago in the spring,” said Joni. “Those are the mammas of the ones the kids will be showing this summer.” The show lambs were born this past spring.
“That was really fun to have baby lambs. They were so tiny — about the size of a large cat.”
The Days purchased the first group of lambs with the dual purpose of providing lambs for the kids to show and also making some money from the sale of the lambs.
“Jeremy and I both showed cattle growing up,” said Joni. “But for little ones this age, unless it’s a bottle calf, cattle are a little big. So the sheep are perfect, since the kids can pretty much handle them.”
They hope to increase the size of their flock until they have between 30 and 50 sheep. Their lambs are a Dorper/St. Croix cross, bred to shed their own wool in the spring.
“That was one of the reasons we went with what’s called a ‘hair sheep’ breed, so we would have to sheer them,” said Joni. “These sheep are intended as strictly for meat production.”
Even as first-timers with lambs, the Days have settled into a routine for their work sessions with the animals, which helps the kids learn the important steps in preparing the lambs for show, and also helps calm the lambs by setting up a comfortable pattern of activity.
“We usually wash them first thing,” said Joni. “That’s partially to keep them clean and partially to cool them off, so when the kids work with them (on a hot day), they’re not as irritable.”
As the three Day kids walked their lambs around the barnyard, three other lambs followed close behind, giving the scene a Pied Piper appearance. Two of the “followers” are being shown this summer by cousins of the Day kids, and all five often work with their lambs together.
As their morning workout, timed to be done before the heat of the day, the lambs were led around the barnyard several times. They were then set up nose to tail and side by side, simulating the positions they’d be asked to assume in the show ring.
“Normally, I try to act like the judge,” said Joni. “I walk around and ask them some questions.” As she said this, she instructed Harper on proper way to hold onto the lamb’s halter. “Since our kids are little, they’ll use a halter, but when they’re older, they won’t use a halter in a show. We’re still working on how we hold their heads.”
Not every lamb was cooperative all the time, and the three “followers” sometimes vied for the kids’ attention, at one point knocking little Harper off her feet.
“Harper’s really a little too young to be doing this,” said Joni. “But she really wanted to be doing what her brother and sister were doing, so we thought we’d give her a chance. Sometimes she has trouble controlling her lamb, but usually she does pretty well.”
“Over time, the kids can see the results of what they’re doing,” said Whittaker. “They can see the hair coat looking better; they can see the animal growing and filling out from good feeding; they can tell the animal is gentler than is was when they started; or it leads better, or its feet set up better. Then they can take their animal to a show and compare it to the other animals there — regardless of what the judge says — and say to themself, ‘Some of these other animals have more muscle than mine. Next year, I need to select an animal that’s got a little more muscle’ — or a long neck or bigger bones — whatever their animal falls just a bit short in.
“The learning from this keeps going on, from year to year. And I think that’s one of the real attractions of livestock showing to families is that it is something the kids learn from over time. It’s not a one-and-done sort of thing.”
Sometime, the learning process goes reaches farther than year to year. Often, it’s generation to generation.
Brent Boyce, who raises Angus, Limosin and Limflex cattle on a farm about a mile south of Marshfield, has been involved in beef shows for 30 years. In that time, he’s taken home the Omer Dishman traveling trophy, awarded to the top overall beef animal at the Webster County Fair, several times. Boyce has now slid into the role of mentor to his nephew, Jackson Dill, and his niece, Ellie, children of Boyce’s sister and brother-in-law, Lisa and Jake Dill. Jackson, 11, took home his first Dishman trophy at last year’s fair.
Jackson started showing bottle calves when he was 4, and graduated to the main show ring about five years ago.
For the summer show season, Jackson and Ellie start working with the cattle in early March, as soon as the weather starts to warm up.
One of the biggest changes Boyce has seen in the 30 years since he started showing has been the type of cattle the judges look for. Another change is the availability of clinics and other learning opportunities available for youth interested in showing.
“There were probably classes when I was growing up, too, but I didn’t have a chance to go,” Boyce said. “Jackson has attended two Stock Show University sessions through Sullivan Supply. They teach the kids how to feed and about hair care and training — how to clip to make them look thicker, deeper and straight across the top, like the judges want to see.”
The most important thing Boyce said he’s learned over the years that gives advantage in the show ring is the role of proper feeding. The Dill kids will be showing three heifers at this year’s Webster County Fair, and each one is fed a little differently from the other two.
“We feed each one differently, depending on their body condition and their body type,” said Boyce. “You want to feed them to where they’ve got a lot of volume — deep ribs, deep middle.”
Somewhat ironically, considering these heifers are being judged as breeding animals, the feed rations for show animals varies significantly from the ration for Boyce’s actual breeding animals.
“The ones we’re not showing develop mainly on fescue pasture,” said Boyce. They receive some grain until they reach about 2 years of age, but a smaller amount than a show animal of similar age.
“These cattle (for show) get fed twice a day and it’s a high-fiber ration. They get a lot of roughage, but eat very little grass.”
The daily activity for a show animal also varies greatly from the rest of the herd.
“We’ll feed them about 6:30 in the morning,” said Boyce. “The Jackson brings them into the barn around 8 a.m. and they’ll spend most of the day in the barn, out of the sun, with the fans and misters going to keep them cool.”
In addition to keeping the animals more comfortable, Boyce said the cooler environment also keeps their appetites more active so they eat better.
In the early evening, the daily work routine starts for the cattle, as they are washed and brushed, then worked with on halters and set up as practice for the show ring.
“The kids enjoy it, and it teaches them a good work ethic,” said Boyce. “Jackson spends a lot of time here at the barn during the day. I think that’s better than watching TV or playing video games. It keeps him pretty busy all summer."