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It’s 6:30 on this Hill Country autumn morning, and an orange glow lines the curve of a cool sky with purple clouds. Chickens peck the ground, a rooster crows and two old friends—Duke, a hound, and Abby, a calico cat—huddle together to ward off the chilly morning air. Fourteen-year-old Emma Travland has already been up for half an hour to herd two steers in from the pasture, then wash, dry, groom and feed them before loading them up for the Kerr County Fair Steer Show.
Emma is a freshman at Fredericksburg High School, and her family is a member of Central Texas Electric Cooperative. A 6 a.m. wake-up call is part of her routine because she has been showing livestock since she was 7. Her mother, Karen, showed steers growing up, and her aunt showed hogs, so showing livestock was integral to her family life. Even so, Emma concedes she did not enjoy showing animals the first couple of years. It was a lot of work, and she found it intimidating.
Her first steer was particularly difficult. It kicked and head-butted her with annoying regularity. As she walked it into the ring for her first county show, the 1,000-pound steer stepped on her foot, its pointed hoof digging into her boot. Emma’s showmanship won the moment, and she kept her composure in front of the judge, holding her tears until she left the pen. That’s when she embraced the challenge of training the animal and bonding with him so that they could work together to win. Despite their trying relationship, Emma recalls how hard it was to put him on the sale truck when it was time to let him go. She didn’t realize she would miss that stubborn steer so much, and she felt the void as the trailer pulled away.
The next March, she chose a new steer, happily taking on her next “project,” as show animals are known, that would require years of tenacity, dedication and more tough lessons.
“If I didn’t show, I would not be the same person I am today,” Emma says. “Showing has taught me different values, like hard work and to always be honest,” she adds. “It has taught me good morals. I have gotten a pretty good work ethic out of showing and have all A’s in advanced courses. Showing has really helped me in school—a ton.”
Emma wants to be a doctor. Possibly a surgeon. Through showing livestock, she is working toward her goal of earning scholarships and gaining the confidence, compassion and courage necessary to be a working professional.
She brushes Mopsy, her Angus, so named because of the unruly mop of hair he had as a calf, and then turns to Pepito, her young black-and-white exotic. He has been in only one show before today, and she hesitates to bring him. This is a smaller prospect show and a perfect opportunity to give her practice with her steers before the “majors.”
The majors begin in January with the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, then continue in San Angelo and San Antonio in February. Finally, shows in Austin and Houston in March set the stage for the State Fair of Texas and Waco’s Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo in the fall. These are the shows where grand champions sell at auction for six figures, and scholarships can reach into five figures. Throughout 2015, more than 57,000 total animals were validated for competition in Texas. Validation categories include market hogs (nearly half of the total), market lambs, market goats, market steers, heifers, wether dams, breeding sheep, wether doe and breeding goats.
Spectators and buyers travel from across the globe to attend famed Texas stock shows and rodeos. Visitors don cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats to get a close look at the care and precision that goes into Lone Star livestock. These events are a true testament to the old saying, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.”
Texas stock show culture began in 1896, when the first livestock show was held on the banks of Marine Creek in North Fort Worth. It grew each year and, in 1907, charged its first admission: 25 cents. Now the show attracts more than 1 million visitors and exhibitors from more than 90 countries. Since 1980, the Fort Worth Stock Show Syndicate, a group of area business leaders, has awarded more than $20 million in scholarships and sale money to youth participants. The Fort Worth Stock Show & Ro-deo stands as the oldest continuously running show in the state.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the largest in the world, drawing more than 2.4 million visitors in 2016 and contributing more than $430 million to Texas youths since 1932. What started as a discussion between seven men brainstorming over lunch about how to promote and preserve the cattle industry along the Texas coast is now a show that sets world records at its auction. In 2016, five world records were set, including the grand champion junior market lamb going for $261,000 and the grand champion junior market barrow, a hog, going for $209,000. That same year, the grand champion junior market steer sold for $375,000, but that price does not measure up to the world record set in Houston in 2002, when the grand champion steer went for $600,001.
The students who show animals earn money by winning premiums, through scholarships and at auction sales, though some shows set a cap on how much of the sale price the student will receive—everything above that goes toward scholarships and expenses. Many participating youths graduate with a good portion of their college bill paid through their hard work, endless early mornings and late nights with their animals, as well as the thousands of dollars required to buy and care for the animals.
Duery Menzies, a Central Texas EC member, is retired and lives just outside Fredericksburg. The livestock show world brought him the love of his life. He met his late wife, LaWanda, when they were both county extension agents. She showed hogs, a few steers and capons when she was growing up, and Menzies showed market lambs and breeding sheep. Menzies recalls sleeping in tents and bedrolls in the barn with the animals in his early years of showing. His mother was the first home demonstration agent in Menard County, and he served as Gillespie County’s extension agent for more than 25 years. In the 1970s and ’80s, he also judged livestock.
“As a judge, you can see self-confidence,” Menzies says. “Winning takes someone who can read livestock. It takes diligence and discipline. People need to learn hard work.”
The numerous prospect shows throughout the state not only provide the opportunity to gain experience; they also make a big impact. In 2015, 47,452 youths participated in county shows across the state, and more than $77 million was invested back into those participants through premiums and auction sales.
Billy Zanolini, assistant professor and extension specialist for youth livestock and agriculture at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said he was surprised by the rising number of poultry and rabbits and attributed it to the fact that these projects take up less space and are less expensive. Smaller show animals create an opportunity for youths to get involved even without access to the land necessary for some of the larger animals.
Emma, Karen, Mopsy and Pepito arrive at the Kerr County Fair Steer Show, and immediately Emma goes to work preparing the animals’ pen and grooming them. She’s had some success in the past, having won reserve American breed champion at the State Fair of Texas in 2013 and grand champion steer at the Texas Junior State Angus Show in 2015, but she is nervous about these two today.
She first brings Mopsy into the ring for the junior showmanship competition. This is all about showing the animal—how she leads, how quickly she sets up, how well she answers questions about topics such as protein content in the feed, and if she makes eye contact. Emma wins third place. Then Mopsy wins reserve British breed champion. And Pepito? Pepito receives fourth place in the exotic middleweights, and the judge remarks that he sees a lot of potential in the way the young steer is filling out. Emma believes Pepito is right where he needs to be, on track to show in the majors.
Brenda Kissko finished her first novel, a coming-of-age story set in West Texas. Visit her online at brendakissko.com.