BENTON -- Fourteen-year-old Justine Hulshof led a steer around a pen, jerking on the rope attached to the halter, while three other steers ran and walked around the 40-foot area. Initially wearing flip flops, then kicking them off once they became covered with mud, it was easy to see that she was totally at ease.
Along with her older brother, Louie, 18, and younger sister, Amanda, 9, Justine is preparing steers to show at the SEMO District Fair next month. This will be Louie and Justine's fourth year showing -- Louie with the Kelly High School FFA program and Justine in a mix between 4-H and FFA -- and Amanda's first year showing, as a 4-H project.
"I think they do it because they enjoy what they get out of it," said Jeff Scherer, FFA advisor at Kelly High School. He has five students taking steers and three taking hogs to the fair this year -- the most in his six years as advisor.
Most students raise the livestock as part of their Supervised Agriculture Experience, a requirement to earn some FFA awards. For some, it is a family tradition. Others, like the Advance students Rich Thomas teaches, "just like to work and be involved with animals."
Since a good portion of the 12-14 students he usually has that show hogs or rabbits at the fair live inside town, Thomas works with local farmers to find a place to keep the animals. He also checks the animals every couple of days.
"They do pretty good with the feeding and watering, but aren't as experienced at monitoring (the animals') health," he said.
Thomas also meets with the students frequently to do weight checks, to ensure the animals reach a target weight -- if they don't fall in a certain category they can't be shown -- and figure out the best diet.
Rabbits are a bit easier to prepare, Thomas said. "It's mostly just feeding them, keeping them groomed and their nails clipped," he said.
Compared to the numerous hours the students put into working with the animals, Scherer admitted his involvement is much smaller. "I'm basically just there to make sure the paperwork gets turned in," he said. "But, I think it's enjoyable to spend time with them and watch them learn."
Justine has learned quite a bit. "It teaches you responsibility -- you have to be responsible for your animal and you have to look after it," she said. "You also have to be really patient."
Much knowledge is gained from raising livestock, and her brother said he learns new things each year. He looks at the height -- taller is better, he said. And as a superstition, he always gets black steers, too. His sister looks both at their dimensions to be sure the steer will fulfill the size requirements, and whether she thinks she will be able to tame them or not.
When the students pick out their steers in the spring, they weigh about 400 pounds. By the time the fair rolls around, it is ideal for them to weigh close to 1,000 pounds.
At the fair, judges look both at how well the students handle the animals and the height, width and muscle mass of the steers. Because of that, the students must work with the livestock quite a bit at the beginning, letting the animals grow accustomed to the halter and following.
After the fair, students can take their livestock home, but most opt to sell them at an auction. "You walk around a big ring in the sponsors building," Louie said. "It's pretty rewarding."
The experience not only allows the students to show off their work, it also gives them connections with area businesses who buy their animals, Scherer said.
For the most part, raising and showing livestock is fun and keeps kids competitive. "Some of them have no experience," Thomas said. "But it's a learning experience. They enjoy animals in general, but just haven't had the opportunity to do that."