By Kathi Bliss
For nearly a year, local youth have been working daily trying to answer one question: where’s the beef. Come Saturday, the question will be answered.
Each year, the Caldwell County Junior Livestock Show and Sale gathers some of the most dedicated and hardworking youth in Caldwell County for one weekend, to share with the community and one another their experiences, learning and caring as they exhibit more than 200 market and breeding animals over the span of a day and a half.
The pinnacle of the show each year comes on Saturday, just before noon, when 4-Hers and FFA members take to the show ring with their market and breeding beef projects.
While all the exhibitors at the Caldwell County Junior Livestock Show (CCJLS) invest a great deal of time and effort into their projects, the beef exhibitors take an extra step with the longest-term (and at times, most dangerous) projects at CCJLS.
“We were looking this weekend for next year’s steers,” said Michelle Koehler, whose three children have participated in the show – specifically with steers and heifers – consistently for nearly 10 years. Koehler’s youngest, Caleb, has three steers ready for show this weekend, and at the tender age of 11, already knows what to look for in next year’s project – which will be in the barn by April.
“A lot of people don’t know that you can’t grow muscle in a steer,” Caleb said while introducing one of his steers to the show ring on Sunday evening. “So you have to look at what their muscle structure is, and how they ‘set’ when they’re calves.”
This is his fourth year to show steers, and he learned at the feet of two older siblings, Kirk and Ashley, both of whom showed steers throughout their CCJLS careers. In watching them, Caleb said, he learned what he wanted to do.
“I’ve just always liked the steers,” he said, resting on the show ring fence like an experienced cattle hand twice his age. “I was always out in the barn, and it always just looked like fun to me. So that’s what I do.”
Caleb also shows hogs, but says that his steers, though they may be more work, are also more interesting. He also said he might try another project at some point before graduation, but he’s content to stick with steers for the time being.
The experience, Caleb said, is more about learning and friendship than it is about money. In fact, he remarked in an amused deadpan, there “isn’t as much money in steers as people think.”
On average, his parents said, the proceeds from one show season, which includes the CCJLS and appearances in either the Houston, Austin or San Antonio “major shows,” will be sufficient to help fund projects for the next year, but that the biggest financial gain is in the scholarships available to stock show participants.
All three agree, though, their participation is about more than the money.
“This is something we do as a family,” Jason Koehler said. “We all work on it together, and we spend time together getting ready for and traveling to the shows, and it’s just good for all of us.”
“…lots of laughs,” Michelle agreed. “A few fights, and memories that we’ll never forget!”
After Saturday’s premium sale, Caleb’s steers will return to their barn, where they will continue to grow and work, in preparation for the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo in late March.
While the Koehlers spend much of their time focused on market beef, other families work together on ways to ensure that the beef market continues to thrive, by raising and showing breeding stock. Ten-year-old Megan Rogers, along with her parents Nancy and David, who shows heifers all year at shows across the State, will jump into the ring with her heifers on Saturday afternoon.
Like the Koehlers, Megan’s participation in the show – and particularly her involvement with breeding beef shows – is in the blood. Her father, David, also showed heifers as a youngster, and Megan said she started her projects as “a treat for Dad.”
The Rogers family, too, looks at participation in shows as a project they can do together, with the hopes that the lessons she’s learning now will carry Megan forward in the future.
“It’s possible that as the years go by, she’ll be able to start her own herd,” Nancy said. “If one of her heifers has a calf that might be good for market, then we might show a steer at some point, but right now we’re just going to focus on the breeding stock.”
That focus, she said, is based in part on the fact that “people are always, always going to need beef.”
In addition, much like in other aspects of stock show competition, there are scholarship programs and dozens of opportunities available to youth who participate in breeding beef shows.
Shows continue throughout the year, and although “breeding class” exhibitors do not earn money during premium sales, they are awarded points for their placements, and those points translate into buckles, jackets and ultimately scholarship prizes.
As of early February, Megan was the second-ranked heifer showperson in her age group, with her eye on the top spot.
It’s not the competition, though that drives her… well, not entirely.
“I learn things from my friends, and they learn things from me, at the circuit shows,” Megan said. “And the biggest thing that we all have to remind each other, sometimes, is that it’s ‘one judge, one day.’”
What she means, and what most livestock exhibitors will tell you, is that any given judge, on any given day, might have a different attitude about the animals they are judging. Today’s Grand Champion might place fifth next week. All one can do, Megan said, is know their project, show as best they can, and hope the judge agrees.
She’ll find out on Saturday whether it’s her judge, and her day.
The first hurdle Caleb, Megan and all other exhibitors and their projects have to leap is on Friday morning, as check-in and weigh-in begins.
In each show class, animals must finish within a certain weight range in order to be eligible for show. If their projects do not “make weight,” the participant’s work for the season might be lost, and they will be unable to participate in this year’s show and sale.
Weigh-ins start at 9 a.m. on Friday, with goats and lambs, followed by swine, beef, rabbits and poultry, and then re-weighs.
At 1 p.m., the excitement begins as the first class of exhibitors enters the ring with their broilers. Showing continues through Friday afternoon and evening, with the animals, and the potential prizes, getting larger and larger through the day.
On Saturday morning, participants, parents and volunteers will return to the ring shortly after sunrise, as swine showing begins at 8 a.m., followed by the beef showing and finally, showmanship awards.
Action in the show ring winds down with the pet show, which will begin around 2 p.m.
After the shows are complete, participants are able to take a break and get themselves (and their projects) dressed in their finest as they prepare for the premium auction, which begins at 6 p.m.