During the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo, life comes full circle for 4-H and FFA youth showing market livestock.
Inside the Trade Center, the sounds of cows mooing, lambs bleating, people talking, boots shuffling and brooms scraping wood shavings into pens reverberated throughout the building.
The critical moment arrived Aug. 13 — livestock weigh-in day, which determined if an animal would be included in the market sale at the end of the week. The Plummer children, 12-year-old Sam and 10-year-old Ione, members of Swan River 4-H, led their steers into a line. While they’ve shown at other livestock, this was Sam’s second year showing a steer and Ione’s first.
For market beef, the animal must weigh no less than 1,050 pounds and no more than 1,450.
By the time Sam’s steer, Willie, and Ione’s steer, Waylon, arrived at the fair, they were eating between 22 and 25 pounds of grain a day.
First, hip height was measured and then the steer were led to a gated scale. Both determined how the animals were grouped. Ione’s steer came in at 1,221 and Sam’s at 1,336. Both had guessed they would come in at heavier weights, but Ione was satisfied with the outcome.
“He was supposed to be small, but he did make it,” she said, nodding. “He did make it.”
Sam and Ione’s market beef project began 10 months ago, when they purchased the black Angus calves from Montana Ranch in Bigfork. While not a typical show breed at the fair, their genetics make for quality market beef, according to the Plummers, who also include mother Janell and father Jeremy, co-owner of Lower Valley Processing.
Since then, their days started at 5:30 a.m. The day began and ended with a walk, which continued throughout fair week.
“You definitely want to make a relationship with them,” Sam said, which included training them to be comfortable with handling, wearing a halter and neck rope, and being groomed for the show ring.
Ione said it started with simple things, like being in the pen with them and holding their grain buckets, then starting to put their halters on. Training was not an easy task.
“He was sort of a wild one and he really wanted to run, but then we got him and now he’s sweet and calm and gentle,” Ione said, scratching the chin of her steer.
After the steer settled in, Montana Livestock Inspector Wes Seward stopped by and got their signatures on bills of sale that would transfer ownership to buyers at the livestock market sale.
While showmanship is a big part of the fair, the end goal is raising high-quality beef and making a return on investment at the livestock sale to cover the costs of raising next year’s market animal.
“What you want from start to finish is you want a steer to come out being a good selling beef. You want a beef to have good marbling,” Sam said noting that the Angus are known for good marbled meat, which translates to flavor.
Jeremy explained that the children figure out how much weight they want their calves to gain, how much the grain will cost and what the profitability will be. Raising market beef is a big investment of time, money and responsibility.
“This is Sam’s fourth year and Ione’s third year and both of these projects are almost solely funded by them,” Jeremy said. “And it’s not one investment. They’ve got to buy beef and later on, they’ve got to buy food. Then they set aside a little bit of money in case a vet has to look at it, and they set aside a little bit of money for a new show halter, [or] new clippers,” Jeremy said, noting that each child has a bank account and both know how to balance a checkbook.
On Aug. 14, it was show time. The combs and clippers came out. Clouds of shine-enhancing spray rose above the steers, leaving behind a glossy sheen. Sam and Ione were dressed in white button-down shirts and black jeans. Sam was wearing a belt buckle that read “locked and loaded,” Ione, a necklace to match her earrings that were her great-grandmother Ione’s.
While there was a lot of hustle and bustle, there was a considerable amount of time spent waiting for their class to compete. After giving the steers a thorough combing, the Plummer children sit down. Same and Ione talked about what to do in the show ring.
“You just have to make sure you watch the judge a lot — keep your eyes on the judge,” Ione said.
The exhibitors used special show sticks to set up the animal’s stance in the ring, which created the desirable boxy profile of a market steer. The stick was also used to keep the steer moving around the ring.
Just as they were about to line up, the siblings looked in surprise as Sam’s steer lay down, covering its side with wood shavings. Taking it in stride, they knelt down and began to push the steer to stand up.
“There we go,” Ione said, smiling as the steer got up. She walked over and tightened the steer’s neck rope so it couldn’t repeat the performance.
“I’ll help you out,” she said, getting out the combs.
Janell stopped by and picked up a comb to brush off the children’s jeans and boots before they lined up. Once in the show ring, Janell and Jeremy watched their children.
“The work they’ve done all summer is what’s being displayed right now,” Jeremy said. “How you interact with your animal, how your animal interacts with everything else. It doesn’t matter what the animal looks like, but it’s how you set up your animal how you present it to the judge and to the crowd.”
After assessing the steers, judge Josh Stroh of Roy Montana talked to each exhibitor, giving them feedback. Before long, the winners were announced.
“Your reserve junior showman is Sam Plummer.”
Jeremy hooted and clapped from the sidelines. Ione was awarded a blue ribbon. Their standing would add value to the steers at the market sale.
Walking out of the ring, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around to congratulate them, but there wasn’t time to waste as Sam was one of the first junior market class contenders. This time, the animal was judged on its looks, specifically its musculature.
Janell hurried to help Sam get ready and back in line. Ione wouldn’t be back in the ring until later.
Like an athlete preparing for a big game, Janell handed over a bottle of water to Sam, who took a long drink. Exhibitors walked into the arena working hard to keep their steers in line. A few ended up walking their steers in small circles before setting them up in line again.
“[I think I did] good. He’s ornery. I think mainly because that other cow was eating on other side [of the ring] and he wanted it,” Sam said with a grin.
Sam was awarded a blue ribbon and Ione a red ribbon for the market class.
The big day arrived Aug. 18 — the market livestock sale. The bleachers were full.
Holding a brush, Ione walked over to her steer and gently tapped its nose. She cupped her hands behind its ears, and leaning in, whispered in a singsong voice, “I love you.”
Meanwhile, a little girl pet Sam’s steer while her dad took a photo. In the background, the auctioneer rattled on.
Prospective buyers walk by and talk with the 4-H and FFA members about their animals. Prior to the fair, the Plummers went around to businesses inviting them to attend the sale.
“Some kids invite them to buy their animal,” Sam said. “We invite them to come here and buy any animal because one sheep is way better [than nothing] even if they can buy one lamb, or something like that it’s still helping out.”
“Should we put our ribbons on now?” Sam asked Ione.
Climbing up the rungs of a gate they grabbed their ribbons and tied them around their belts for buyers to see.
This time, Ione was first to go into the ring. She was next up when her steer turned around in line. A fair assistant came over and helped turn the steer back around. For a moment, all was calm, when suddenly, the steer charged into the ring with Ione holding onto the halter. The crowd’s collective gasp was audible. But Ione held her own with a look of determination. She managed to subdue her steer and circled back to the ring entrance and go on with the show. Her steer brought $4.50 a pound, and Sam’s $4.25. Both were purchased by Anderson Masonry Inc. in Bigfork.
“Did you see my amazing performance?” Ione asked her mother.
“You did excellent,” Janell said.
An older exhibitor stopped at Ione’s stall to compliment her on how she handled the steer in the ring.
“Good job. Pretty impressive how long you held on for.”
All that was left in the competition was the carcass evaluation on Aug. 22 at Vandevanter Meats in Columbia Falls. But first, everyone had to get through the day where they loaded up the market livestock to be taken to Vandevanter Meats. Although they knew this was what they were working towards, and realized their animals would feed families and support future market livestock projects, it would not be easy.
On Aug. 19, the steers and youth gather outside the Trade Center in a field. Sam and Ione waited by their steers. Everyone was quiet.
It wasn’t until trailers started arriving and the animals were loaded that the tears began falling — even from some of the seasoned veterans.
Sam and Ione buried their faces into their steers, cradling their arms around their necks. Finally, it was time. Ione and Sam lined up with their steers and were hugged and consoled by family, fellow 4-H’ers and FFA’ers along the way.
“It’s tough. It’s tough. It’s always a horrible hour,” Jeremy said. “After you spend that much time [with one animal].”
“But it gives the kids that understanding of ranch life and the goal and the outcome,” he said, noting that it would get better when they returned for carcass evaluation. The circle of life would continue and Sam and Ione would begin planning for their next market livestock project.
“It’s just this part. The putting it on the trailer,” Jeremy said. “This part is always, always tough.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or email@example.com.