The Pottawatomie County Fair came to a successful conclusion. Four days of fun and celebration had come down to the final few moments. Tack was packed up, signs were taken down and the market livestock were loaded on the trucks for their final destination. I like to think I am a big, tough guy, I know where my food comes from but this is the one part that gets to me.
Big Red was a good steer. My daughter had the first pick out of our herd this year and she picked the big red steer instantly. We brought him home and immediately he proved himself to be a very gentle, slow moving calf. He broke to lead as fast as any calf we have ever tried to lead. Always eager to be caught and ever ready for feedings he soon became a favorite around the barnyard.
Oh sure he had his moments. One blistering hot summer night he kicked me for no apparent reason. Well, other than he was just as hot and cranky as the rest of us. Big Red was also known to plant himself and not want to move when the mood hit him also. However, all things considered, he was a pretty good steer and I knew the final day of the fair would be hard.
“Dad would you lead Big Red to the truck for me” came the request on Saturday night. “Sure, no problem”, I said trying to be tough, knowing all the time that it wouldn’t be easy. When the announcement came, I clinched my teeth and untied Big Red one last time. I took him to the holding pen walking past red eyed youth and the other Dad’s with clinched teeth. No one dared talk; no one looked at each other. It was a tough, hard task, but one that we all had signed up for and one that we all knew was necessary. That didn’t make it any easier.
There are some who think the market animal project is cruel, at best, and borders on abuse. They wonder how any parent can allow their child to care for an animal for months and then send it off for slaughter. I have heard these people speculate that we are hardening our kids and making them uncaring. Nothing could be farther from the truth, in fact, the opposite is very much true.
This summer was a tough one to own livestock. The kids went out early in the morning to feed and exercise the steers. Then they tied them up under a fan, in the shade, going out to water them every two hours. Finally, as the sun went down and the temperature went from blazing to uncomfortable, they would feed them again and make sure they had fresh, cold water for the night. Then they would wake up at 5:30 the next morning and do it all over again, every day, seven days a week. They learned that the comfort of their animals came before their own comfort.
My kids knew the day would come when the steers would be shipped and they knew that a steer only has one purpose, but that didn’t mean that they did not put all of their energy and efforts into caring for them. Most livestock producers that I know have the same, total respect for the animals they raise; the care of those animals is always the number one priority. While the animals are in our care, we do our best to provide for their health and comfort. Those principles are what my kids are learning with the market animal projects.
As for the argument that it makes the youth heartless and uncaring, all you have to do is look at the parents to disprove that theory. I saw some of the toughest men and women I know walking back from the holding pens, empty halter in one hand, arm around their kid, staring at the ground behind dark glasses. My guess is that they had the same lump in their throat that I had in mine. There are some things that just aren’t easy, no matter how many times you have done it.
The memories of Big Red will always be good ones, we all have favorite animals we have owned and I am sure he will be one of my daughter’s. Time heals all wounds and soon talk will turn to picking out next year’s project. Every livestock producer realizes that if you didn’t care, if you didn’t go that extra mile, you wouldn’t be very good at your job. That is why, I am proud of my kids and all the other youth for a job well done.