Chris Smith stands in the back of the 4-H arena at the Northern Gila County Fair Friday while the hogs circle around the show pen, rooting in the wood shavings. The huge animals throw dust in the air with their snouts and squeal at each other before starting fights. Handlers pull them apart by tugging at their halters.
Smith, a man with lively brown eyes and a slight drawl, doesn’t look like a rancher.
In fact, he looks like he’d be more comfortable in an office than raising animals, however, Smith and his wife home-school their three children on five acres of rural ranch land.
Having his children understand where their food comes from is important to Smith and that is where 4-H comes in.
4-H offers a chance for his children to receive excellent advice on how to raise animal from longtime ranchers such as Heidi Kueny, the leader of this year’s 4-H animal projects, to demonstrate how to raise animals properly.
Part of the schooling for his children includes understanding where their food comes from. In the past, they raised beef cattle. This year they decided on the hogs.
“It’s vastly different between raising steers and hogs,” said Smith.
“(Raising 4-H animals) gives you a respect for the process. Heidi was available at any time to answer questions we had,” said Smith.
This year, his two daughters, Rachel, 16, and Emily, 11, raised a hog they named Lily. Smith sheepishly admits Lily had a bit too much to eat. The target weight for hogs is 250 pounds. Lily came in at 370.
“Our pig was the big one,” said Smith of the family hog.
On Friday, the steers and hogs were judged on two factors:
Were the animals raised properly for meat production?
Did they have too much fat?
Did the muscles seem lean from exercise, or did the children neglect the animals?
Did the animals work well with the kids by allowing them to lead them around the arena?
If the kids did not spend enough time exercising and working with their animal, it showed during this portion of the judging.
Many might consider raising animals for meat a contradiction. Hogs take only a few months to reach market weight, but steers can take up to two years, plenty of time to bond with the animal. Learning to balance the care of the animal, with the understanding of the purpose of that animal encompasses the core of the 4-H animal projects.
“It is what it is. (The process) makes you appreciate what goes into the food we eat,” said Smith.
According to 4-H, members learn to raise animals in a responsible way. Members follow animal and food production principles with the purpose of nurturing a wholesome food supply.
They learn that an animal’s life is as important as its end.
4-H youth learn to understand that animals slaughtered for food died for a purpose.
Jadee Garner, the high school animal sciences teacher and Future Farmers of America (FFA) representative, helps out at the fair. Many of the 4-H members also belong to FFA. The two organizations complement each other and work to create well-rounded students. 4-H has more adult involvement, where the kids run FFA.
While helping out at the fair, Garner took a moment to explain what each of the kids puts into raising a 4-H animal.
“The students pay for the purchase of the animal. Then they cover all of the food, de-worming, grooming materials and vet bills for the life of their animal,” said Garner.
In the case of steers, children can invest up to $2,000 and 22 to 24 months of care in their animal before it comes to the fair to be sold for meat production.
Garner said the kids keep a logbook on all injuries and costs incurred while raising the animal.
The children learn business practices, such as keeping all receipts for anything they purchase. Often, they have to borrow money to invest in their project; recouping that money becomes an important part of the animal project through the auction.
The auction took place on Saturday. Members sent out letters to potential buyers of their animal projects.
4-H and FFA hold a dinner for the buyers prior to the auction to give the kids a chance to talk about their animals and what went into their projects. Potential buyers roam the stalls examining the steers and hogs while checking out which animal won which awards the day before.
One year, Garner reported a student brought in $6.50 per pound on his steer.
“He made over $7,000, recouping all of his costs and making a profit,” said Garner.
Other students might actually lose money.
“Last year a student lost money on her lamb,” said Garner.
Sometimes, a buyer will buy an animal, and then donate that animal back to the student to personally use for meat. The purchase ends up a donation to help the child cover their costs.
Both Garner and Smith agree it is all a learning process that teaches responsibility.
Back at the arena, Smith watches his daughter’s hog, Lily, take a turn around the ring while the judge gives feedback, “These hogs both have a nice level back, huge hams and their jowls aren’t too big. This one could be a lot straighter, but still, they look good. I’m gonna call this one the winner,” said the judge pointing to Lily.
She won Best of Show.