Hard lessons in livestock

Agriculture: An animal auction teaches children about farm economics and letting go.

August 13, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When Charlie Coles entered the show ring at the Howard County Fair for the annual 4-H livestock sale with his white goat, Snowflake, he couldn't muster a smile.

The 8-year-old's face was downcast as the auctioneer took bids from audience members and when he and Snowflake had their photograph taken with the winning bidder. Then the two jogged back to the barn, where Charlie sat alone for a while, thinking about saying goodbye.

"There is a lot of crying on sale night," said Charlie's sister Katie, 10, remembering her tears last year, when she sold a favorite lamb. "You don't want to see them go."

Most of the young people get used to parting with their animals, but at first it can be a hard lesson in farm economics.

After grooming the animals, driving them to the fairgrounds, entering them in several livestock shows and grooming them again, a year's worth of 4-H work culminates at the livestock auction. Animals are sold to the highest bidder and, the next day, are sent to meat processors.

For youngsters who choose to raise market animals - cattle, pigs, sheep and goats raised for their meat - the sale at the end "is part of the educational process," said Martin Hamilton, an educator with the Maryland Co- operative Extension who works with the 4-H program. "If you do the project, you are raising an animal that is moving into the food chain."

On Wednesday night, the show ring was decorated with ribbons and tinsel and echoed with the din of hundreds of chattering spectators, cheering supporters and the rapid-fire calling of the auctioneer. One by one, the youngsters brought their animals forward to be viewed and bought. This year, 35 steers, 102 swine, 86 lambs and 20 goats were sold.

Most bidders are there to support the 4-H program, offering generous bids in exchange for animals that were lovingly tended. Some buyers designate a meat processing company and will pick up their steaks, chops and other cuts in the next week or two. Others, who are more interested in community service, give the money to the 4-H member and then let the 4-H committee sell the animal to a commercial broker, with the proceeds going to a scholarship or other charity.

Farming business

In rapidly growing Howard County, where the suburbs are encroaching on what is left of the rural land, most 4-H participants will not become farmers. But families still embrace the program for teaching children responsibility, record-keeping and presentation skills, along with agriculture.

After buying an animal and tending it for months, many participants are eager to make some of their money back.

An animal that is likely to do well in competitions costs money up front, said Anna Marie Schlicht, 18, of Clarksville. And, there are costs for feed, equipment and show fees. "That adds up," she said.

Schlicht was disappointed to sell her 278-pound Reserve Grand Champion Swine (the second-highest award for the swine division) for $3.25 a pound. "It's the lowest I've ever had," she said. "That money was going to go to college."

For many of the youth, the sale adds another lesson to those learned about animal care and feeding: the importance of marketing.

Sellers try to cultivate relationships with buyers before the sale, sending out letters and requesting support from people in the community. Previous buyers are thanked with small gifts, signs above the animal pens and publicity in the fair book.

The youngsters even use last-minute touches - from pigs adorned with sparkles to steers with flowers tucked into their halters - to make a good impression and drive up the price.

A softer side

Still, most of the young people are attracted by the softer side of raising animals.

The Coles family took lambs, swine and one goat to the fair this year. Older sister Beth, 14, Katie and Charlie got the animals as babies, feeding the orphaned infant lambs four times a day with a bottle.

They cleaned the animals' stalls, fed them daily and most days put ropes on the lambs and goat, walking them down the long dirt driveway of their Lisbon farm and through a nearby housing development.

"I have fallen in love with the sheep project," Beth said. "I personally think they have more personality than pigs."

Fair week began before the gates opened, as the Coleses washed and groomed their animals. They took the livestock to the fairgrounds, set them up in pens and spent several afternoons leading - and sometimes pulling and cajoling - them through livestock shows.

After all that, it is hard not to be attached, said Mary Jeanne Coles. "They have worked with [the animals] so much that past week, it kind of brings it all home at the sale," she said.

After a while of feeling down, Charlie Coles' spirits improved when he joined the 4-H cheering section, where he rang a bell, held up a sign and chanted "higher, higher" at the bidders.

His sister Katie offered a positive spin for letting the animals go.

"You get to start all over again," she said. "And have more fun."

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