Have you ever thought of the similarities between show cattle and human toddlers? As I was walking out to the barn this past summer, I began to think of the heartbreaking losses and the Championship wins that I had witnessed in the show ring. But it was as I started to think about my daily dealings with 1300-pound animals, I begin to realize one thing. Taking care of show cattle is much like taking care of babies.
I know nobody knows a single person who is a picky eater. But this finicky quick can start young in children. Babies starting on foods find certain foods they like and others that they most certainly do not like. Give a baby an arrangement of food and you will most likely find some foods gone quickly and others not even tried. If you can believe it, cattle are similar. Toss a cup of Stierwalt SuperFlex powder, into a feed mixture for a calf and put it in front of the calf to eat. You should not be surprised to come back thirty minutes later to find all of the grain gone, but almost a cup of powder left in the feed pan.
When I was
eight years old, I had my first show calf. We got him in December of 2010 when
we weighed about 600 pounds. From that day until the Lincoln County Fair in
July of 2011, my family tried many complete feeds. We tried what seemed like every
show feed brand, Purina, Show-Rite, ADM and even tried to mix our own feed that
would have every ingredient, protein (soybean meal), fat (molasses), energy
(corn), fiber (cotton seed hulls), salt, and other minerals (calcium, potassium
etc.) the steer needed to have a “complete diet”. Much to our dismay, the steer
was much like a baby trying food for the first time, he found one food he liked
and would not eat anything else. Whole kernel corn was the only thing that that
steer cared to eat. While this was no harmful for the steer, it did create a
challenge. Whole kernel corn is an energy source, not a fat or protein. Fat and
protein will help cattle become finished quicker and more easily than strictly
energy. As me and my family worked to try and feed this steer, we certainly
felt like parents to a young picky eater.
There is no doubt that feeding time in the show cattle barn is similar to dinner time at the table with a young eater. I can still recall when my brother, Cauy, was a baby the mess that was made each time we put food in front of him. Without fail there was food on him, on the floor, anywhere he could throw it, and everywhere in between. Each time this happened, we took a deep breath and began to clean it up because there was nothing you could do to stop it the next time.
Walk into a
show barn, and you will find a similar situation. Showmen and parents
struggling to keep their cool as cattle are spinning and tipping feed pans. The
pile of feed that is now soggy from water sloshed out of a bucket by the same
steer that may now refuse to eat the spilt feed. Set a full five-gallon bucket
of water down for a calf and walk away, well there is your mistake. As soon as
you walk away, there goes the bucket water sloshed across a mat and into the
woodchip stall. Without fail the bucket will get tipped and the water spilt. In
2019, I had a steer named Rico. Now this steer, without missing a feeding,
would spin his feed pan and dump half of the feed out onto the ground before he
ate the feed left in the feed pan. Now one would think this is a large waste of
feed, but no. As soon as he had eaten what was left in his feed pan, he would
proceed to clean up the feed on the ground. While this drove myself and my
family berserk, the steer was as phased by the mess as a young baby is by their
One of the
toughest times to care for a child is before they learn to talk. You have no way
to ask them questions such as why they are upset, what is hurting them, or if
they are hungry. This communication barrier can be large cause of frustration
for parents because life would be simple if the baby could just answer a
question. Luckily for parents the majority of children do learn how to speak
and/or communicate in another such way.
cattle are not the same. Cattle never learn communication skills with humans. I
cannot walk up to my brother’s steer on show morning at the Nebraska State Fair
and ask him why he will not eat any feed we put in front of him. I could not
ask my steer in 2015 why he did not like my two younger siblings and would kick
at them whenever they came near. To this day my sister can be quoted saying, “There
were three times when “Royal Pain in the Ass” kicked me. And that’s only cause
I stayed away after that.” Cattle do not have the ability to share their
feelings or problems. Similar to newborn
parents, cattle owners must use their best judgement and sometimes even just
take a guess at what is wrong with and what the “baby” needs.
In 2017, I took
a steer to the National Western Stock Show. When we got to Denver, my steer
became sick and refused to eat. If he would have been able to speak, he could
have answered our questions and helped us figure out what was wrong quicker.
Unfortunately, it took us most of eight hours to figure out that he was likely
dehydrated and needed fluids. Because of this my steer did not look his best
during the show and therefore did not place as high as we would have liked. I
know I speak for “parents” of cattle and human babies when I say that our jobs
would be easier to complete if we were able to be told exactly what the “child”
wanted or needed.
The “Terrible Twos” are what many people called the time in a child’s life when temper tantrums seem to run rampage. When a child does not get what he/she wants and begins to scream and whine, or flail itself around seem to occur at the most inconvenient times. Of course, in the mind of the child, the candy isle seems like the perfect place to scream at the top of his or her lungs after being told they can only have one piece of candy. As the parent tries to calm the child and reduce the scene being made, the embarrassment hits. Much like the toddler screaming at the most inconvenient location, my show calves also seem to find what they consider the “perfect” time to throw a temper tantrum.
While cattle’s temper tantrums are not always as loud as a toddler’s, there are other obstacles that face the calf’s owner or showman. Take a screaming two-year-old for example that does not want to leave Grandma’s house. The mother can simply pick up the child and carry him to the car to go home. Now consider this, you are trying to lead a calf into place in front of a backdrop to take a picture. The calf decides he does not want to walk near the backdrop. Unfortunately, you cannot pick up a 1350-pound steer and move him where you want him to go. Picture this, you have the halter of a steer that weighs more than five times as much as you do in your hand at the Nebraska State Fair. You are pulling with all of your strength to get him to walk in front of the backdrop. At the same time your father and another grown man are behind the steer trying to push him forward. Another showman is leading a calf in front of you with hope that your steer will follow the other steer. All of this is for a simple photo. Oh, how we love the temper tantrums of life.
I cannot imagine not showing cattle and managing our show cattle every day, just as a parent cannot imagine not caring for and loving their children. Each of these two ideas have their struggles and their joys. There is no doubt that babies and cattle are very different, but if you start to stop and think about it there are many similarities to raising each. Everything from meal time to communication to attitude can be similar between a 25-pound child and a 1300-pound calf. Just remember, we cannot tell the children, or the cattle, which one is our favorite, because parents do not have favorites. Right?