Selling your first market project is a difficult process for most young exhibitors. When it came time to load my first steer on the truck, I cried, my siblings cried, cousins cried, parents cried, actually I think most of the barn was in tears watching me. My little sister tried to lead my steer out for me and I took him back to the stall. I’ve never been someone who is good at saying goodbye, and unfortunately I’ve had quite a bit of practice at it over the years. But the empty halter they handed me after my steer was loaded was one of the harder goodbyes I had to say up to that point in my young life.
There’s a wide array of feelings that kids have when they let their first project go. I’ve seen kids that celebrated, kids like me making the whole barn cry for my first steer, and I remember a girl that used to wrap herself in the halter and sit in her steer’s stall crying every year until she graduated high school. Most of us don’t make a big deal out of it for more than the first few times, but we don’t stop crying because we don’t care about our animals.
I understood the process of raising and selling cattle before I had my first steer. I grew up on a ranch and watched cows have to earn their keep to stay. I understood that feedlots exist to generate a product that feeds the world. I’ve read people’s opinions that raising 4-H projects is cruel because we’re forced to sell the animal to be processed at the end. But we understand why we’re raising the animals. I didn’t cry when I sold my steer because I was mourning his death, I cried because I had spent a lot of time working with him, and all goodbyes are hard when you’re young.
One of the grocery stores in my county purchases animals from the market sale and then sells the product in their store with a picture of the animal and information about the kid and how they raised their project. I think that’s a really great thing to do because consumers get to learn where their meat came from and the kids get to see the result of their hard work feeding people in the town.
Raising market projects is a rewarding process for those of us that get the chance to do it. We learn how to care for an animal and can take pride in the fact that the animal we worked so hard to raise is going to turn into a product that feeds other people. I spent a lot of time with my steers, learned their personalities, and developed relationships with them, but I understood that they weren’t pets. It’s hard the first time because we may think that the animal we’ve been given is a pet, but part of the process is learning the difference between livestock and the family dog.
I’m not sure what’s the best way to prepare your child to sell their first market animal. I know everyone approaches it differently and just like anything with parenting, there’s not a set right way. I think the kids that have the most trouble are ones that didn’t know that they sell the animal at the end. It may seem easier to not tell your kid that they have to say goodbye after the fair, but that would’ve made it harder on me. Part of raising a market animal is learning more about livestock and their role in agriculture to feed the world. When kids raise their own animals they get a first hand look at how feed, water and environment contribute to the growth of their project. If they don’t know that the goal is to create a food product at the end, they’re not getting the full learning experience.
I found the carcass results interesting after shows were over. We rarely purchased true show steers for my projects, instead we would use calves that weren’t good enough to be marketed as bulls from our operation. My calves did well against the competition but were rarely selected as champion. The first time Mom took me to a carcass awards presentation, I remember thinking it was embarrassing to even go. My steer had placed in the bottom of his class, what was the point? Imagine my surprise when my low placing steer won the carcass contest. It was exciting to see carcass results when the time came because many of the steers that didn’t place well in the show shined in the carcass results. I learned about how different traits contribute to the quality of the product my animals produced. It was exciting when people in the community chose to purchase my steers to feed their family for the year because I knew they’d have a great eating experience.
Of course I always wished I would be allowed to go out and purchase show steers and have the bragging rights that come along with winning. But the learning experience and the saved cost of using cattle we already owned, and had no use for, won out in the end. I may not have gotten to shine in the steer show but I made sure that no one topped me in the showmanship and female classes. My dad gave me calves free of cost, and sure they didn’t win but at a little county fair where I live, I sold for just as much if not more than anyone else selling anywhere in the sale. My mom decided that all the profit we made off our market steers would go directly into our college funds. I felt a little proud of those “bull rejects” upon graduating college after taking nothing in student loans. I paid for an out-of-state college education and four years of living expenses solely on the profits of my 4-H and FFA market steers.
I wouldn’t trade the learning experience of involvement in 4-H and FFA for anything. I’m thankful to have grown up in agriculture and feel truly blessed for having this lifestyle. Everyones experiences in these organizations are different, but I think overall, its a great thing for all of us. Taking responsibility for an animal, raising that animal, and learning how that project contributes to feeding other people is an experience that can’t be beat.
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