I will admit I want to be a livestock 4-H kid.
As a York County 4-H’er in the 1990s I spent my time baking muffins, taking photographs and researching my family’s past for heritage projects.
I only really knew a few people who had livestock and rarely spent any time in the barns or around the show ring.
So my first few years at the Hastings Tribune, I think I was intrigued yet a little hesitant about going into the livestock barns to find stories from those 4-H’ers.
I knew nothing about cattle, hogs (or pigs as I called them), chickens, goats or any of those other animals. Even today, I will admit any knowledge I do have is limited.
However, I have come to respect those animals and those amazing 4-H’ers more than I would have ever imagined.
I think one of my first real experiences with a livestock 4-H’er was in January 2006 when I visited the rural Roseland farm of Chris Trausch.
The Trausches are the traditional livestock 4-H family with all of the kids having spent hours caring for their animals and several of them having earned the Tribune’s Tribland 4-H King and Queen awards.
The part of the experience that sticks out for me is not interviewing the quiet young man, but taking the photo to go with the story.
Chris is a cattle guy, so we went out into the pasture to get a photo of him surrounded by his cattle.
Now if you’ve ever worked with a herd of cattle, you know they aren’t necessarily interested in posing for photos. I remember at first being intimidated by standing in an enclosed area surrounded by so many cattle. And then came my frustration as they seemed to have figured out what I was doing and moved back and forth the opposite direction as I tried to get them in the background of the photo.
Even after that experience, I decided not to give up, and each year as I wrote stories about 4-H’ers for the award I came into contact with more and more animals. There were the years I held new lambs that were just hours or days old and snuggled with rabbits or hung out with hogs and cattle.
Then there’s the fair itself.
I have always been amazed by the dedication of these young people ages 8-18 who spend a week living at the fairgrounds in campers so they can be close to their animals.
These are the same kids who wake up early in the morning during the school year and summer to care of those same livestock year round.
There’s the birth of new babies in the winter and spring. There are the struggles of fighting cold winters and hot summers along with disease, injury and predatory animals that are all fighting against that 4-H’er’s success.
Then there’s the training that goes into leading an animal around the show ring to prepare it for the various shows they will go to throughout the spring and summer in anticipation for the annual county fair.
During the fair, those 4-H’ers and their families spend hours upon hours each day of the fair preparing their animals, showing them in the ring and simply caring for them.
Before the fair is even open to the public, these 4-H’ers have already been at the fairgrounds for several days, preparing their animals for the numerous shows that are held during the five days of the fair.
Most non-4-H people think of the fair as something they go to in the evening after work to get some good food, check out the exhibits and maybe attend a concert or visit the midway.
However, I can tell you there is so much going on during the day that you’re missing out on if you don’t go out.
There are shows for all the different animals from the hogs, sheep and cattle, to the rabbits and chickens. There’s even a dog show and a small animal show with animals from cats to geckos.
The Monday after the fair when most people have gone back to work and are preparing for the next thing, those livestock 4-H’ers are back at the fairgrounds for the livestock auction.
After the animals are sold, some return home for a few weeks before the Nebraska State Fair or other shows.
The rest, however, are loaded onto trucks and taken to the slaughterhouse.
Some 4-H’ers see only the business side and the money they are getting from selling their animals on the auction block.
To the other 4-H’ers who give their animals names like Bacon, Fuzzy and Lumps, watching their animals being sold and hauled away is an emotional experience to say the least.
Even with all of that, I think the most heartwarming part of watching livestock 4-H’ers is seeing the way they all work together.
When they’re in the ring, those 4-H’ers are competing against each other for the grand champion prize.
But every other moment of the day, they are helping each other wash animals, clean pins, train animals, catch the wayward stray and even teach the young 4-H’ers how to work with their animals.
At the end of the day, the lessons these 4-H’ers learn about everything from the financial end of owning animals as a business to the compassion required for caring for the animals and their fellow 4-H’ers is invaluable.
I think it’s because of those lessons, values and dedication of these amazing kids that I wish I, too, could be a livestock 4-H’er.