by ALEXANDRA RETTER
He must have jumped, 4-H member Sydney K. thought. She had walked into a barn to find one of her sheep with a broken leg from getting stuck between a wall and a bar on a hay feeder. She was raising and training the sheep to participate in a 4-H livestock show at the Winona County Fair, and she soon began helping him recover. Taking him to a veterinarian regularly, cleaning the impacted area, changing the bandage there frequently to make sure he did not get an infection and helping him walk again were all part of how she cared for him. By the time the show came around, one could not tell his leg had been broken, she shared.
Helping her sheep heal was just one piece of the work Sydney put into preparing him for the show in a year during which, after the cancellation of the Winona County Fair due to the pandemic, it was not certain that shows would take place. Members of 4-H spend months feeding, exercising, bathing, in some cases milking and training their animals for the shows. They discover the methods which work best for training and feeding each individual animal. They name their furry friends. They make sure their animals are comfortable with them and people in general so they are not frightened of the judges at the shows. If they are working, they spend time with their animals before and after their shifts. They agreed that when they heard the fair was cancelled, they were disappointed that they may not have a chance to show the judges the results of their efforts.
“I was devastated,” Paige H., a soon-to-be Winona Senior High School senior who shows rabbits said of her response to the fair’s cancellation. “I kind of live for the fair. I love the people and my friends.”
She noted that she sees many of her friends from 4-H just once a year during the fair.
Those graduating from 4-H this year particularly wanted to enjoy their final shows. When they heard organizers had been able to coordinate a show with health and safety precautions in place, they were extremely grateful, they said. The livestock show was held last week, closed to the public, with a small crowd of family members donning masks.
Those who have been participating in the shows for years had to start somewhere. Initially, showing a steer was a bit scary, Simon W. said, as he weighed about 60 pounds at the time of his first show and the steer weighed around 1,400 pounds. However, with the support of adults involved with 4-H and members of 4-H who were older than him, he soon came to view the show as the best part of summer and to appreciate connecting with other 4-H members. He has now shown lambs, goats and steers over his 12 years of taking parts in shows, and his connections with others involved with 4-H have led to friendships, internships and jobs, such as a crop research position with the University of Minnesota Extension.
At Makayla J.’s first lamb show, she was excited and nervous, she said. She had not had previous experience with lambs. A friend who had told her about the lamb show and that friend’s mom assisted her, though, and she came to enjoy raising and showing lambs to such a degree that she stuck with it for years. During the six years in which she has participated in the shows, she has shown lambs and heifers.
Sydney was nervous around cows when she was younger, but after 14 years of being part of the dairy show, she now feels at ease when interacting with them, she said. She started showing sheep about four years ago after seeing some that her friend had at their house.
Paige and Lucas W. both lease the rabbits they showed at last week’s event — meaning they work with animals at a friend’s family farm that has more room to raise animals. They’ve each been involved with 4-H for five years — Lucas after watching his brother have so much fun showing animals and spending the whole week at the County Fair.
Paige said she’s always loved rabbits, and the first she showed at the fair — Marty the mini rex — aged out of the competition circuit, so she adopted him. “[He’s] definitely my favorite one,” she said.
4-H members noted that their animals all had special personalities and characteristics that sometimes led to joy and, on occasion, resulted in fear for the furry companions.
Simon was walking his sheep in preparation for the show one evening at dusk. When he was about half a mile into the walk, he noticed that the rest of the sheeps’ herd was sprinting after him and his sheep. “When I got back, they had broken the fence down to get to their friends,” he said.
For Makayla, relaxation turned into panic in one situation with her animals. She was relaxing in a lawn chair outside on a sunny day, and her lambs were in a pen nearby. She lives near a busy interstate. Somehow, the lambs escaped and managed to find their way into her cows’ enclosure, which frightened the cows. She was able to catch one lamb, and that action resulted in the others returning as well.
One top of the scare Sydney received with her sheep breaking his leg, a beef calf she was going to show passed away unexpectedly from pneumonia soon before he would have appeared in front of the judges.
There have been lighter moments with her animals as well. Her cow and her cow’s daughter are quite sassy, she noted. “They like to do what they want,” she said.
When trying to lead them somewhere slowly, they may keep going after she tells them to stop or toss their heads, she explained.
The sheep who broke his leg has a sweet personality also, she said. When she walks into the barn that is his home, he will walk toward her to tell her he wants her to pet him. “The other ones in the pen don’t want anything to do with you when you come in there,” she added.
4-H members agreed: having a livestock show, however limited, was fortunate after a year of hard work caring for their animals. “I didn’t care we weren’t having a whole fair week,” Makayla said. “I just wanted to do my thing with my lambs and with my best friend.”
Sydney said seeing her friends from 4-H is a highlight of participating in shows. Some of the friends she has made at shows over the years have become like her family, she shared. “So I think the people is the best part, and making the memories with them is something I’m going to miss a lot,” she noted.
Amid the challenges and triumphs that accompany raising and showing animals, particularly during a pandemic, the 4-H members explained that the skills which they have gained from their experiences with the group will be used throughout their lives.
Simon has learned about skills including responsibility and leadership while raising and showing animals, he said. “Training animals is never easy,” he said. “Every animal is different. As you’re building those skills, perseverance and things like that really comes into play.”
He has appreciated helping younger members of 4-H, and as the eldest of eight children, his siblings, as they raise animals for shows, he shared.
Through raising and showing animals, Makayla has gained responsibility, patience and an appreciation for all the work farmers do that helps the circle of life to continue, she said.
Sydney gained responsibility and patience, as well as skills tied to being a leader and adapting to new situations, through raising and showing animals, she stated.
For 4-H projects that were separate from the livestock shows and would have been judged at the Winona County Fair, including photography, aerospace and food projects, 4-H members submitted videos of themselves presenting their work, and judges submitted videos with feedback to the members in return.
Those interested in learning more about 4-H may visit https://local.extension.umn.edu/local/winona/4-h.