My family and I raised cows for beef production on our farm in East Texas. Each year I would separately raise a special steer for my local 4-H and Future Farmers of America chapters. The idea being you’d raise an animal until it was time to take it to the livestock show and sale that happened once a year. At the sale the judge would look over your animal carefully and determine which type of ribbon, if any, you’d get. For beef cattle, the judge awards a certain number of blue ribbons and one grand champion ribbon to the best in show. If you didn’t get a blue ribbon you couldn’t get into the sale and were then forced to sell offsite at a much lower price per pound. There are many steps to winning the coveted blue ribbon. The most important one being how to show respect to the judge. It’s always important to keep your eye on the judge at all times and keep your animal’s posture and pose in check. Taking your eye off the judge for even a second meant standing a chance of losing out on a ribbon and better yet, the grand champion ribbon.
From the moment I saw Buck running around the pasture with his mother, I knew he was the one. Everything I’d been taught to look for in a steer, he had. His back was straight and his legs were muscular. His rear end square and pronounced. His coat a shiny chocolate brown color with white socks and face. He was perfect. I paid 350 dollars for him. The first 2 weeks were rough. Just getting a halter over his head took hours. The idea was to tame your animal so you could exercise it with long walks and then teach him how to present for the judge. Feeding and exercise are important to healthy animals, which in turn yields healthy meat. Dad came down one day and we roped off part of the corral I was keeping him in. Inside the roped off area, Buck and I played tug of war with the direction I wanted him to go in. Poor Buck. He just didn’t get it. Dad got an idea to fill up a bucket with feed and put it in front of Buck. It worked and Buck started to get the hang of it. Every so often Buck would pull away and end up dragging me into the ropes which burned my face and arms a few times. We finally graduated to walking around the whole corral, but at times Buck would pull away and end up dragging me around until I finally had to let go or be thrown into the boards of the corral. Eventually Buck learned to lead and when that day came I was relieved. I had cuts, burns and scrapes from head to toe.
We walked all over the ranch. Buck was like my best friend. His deep dark eyes staring into mine. Sometimes he’d try and lick my hair with his big tongue and lightly bump his head against me. He made me laugh. We walked everywhere; to the store, down the street, to friend’s houses and back pastures with gates that opened up to vast acreage of even more back pastures. Eventually I taught him to let me hop on his back so I could ride him like a horse. He hated it at first and he got really good at throwing me off which is partly why I named him Buck in the first place. The day he came out of the cattle trailer I walked around to his side and stuck my hand on his fluffy coat. He bucked, threw his leg out to the side and kicked me hard in the stomach so hard I damn near cried from the pain. Dad scolded me for even getting so close to his back legs. “Cows kick sideways son. Remember that!” he yelled. I said “his name is now Buck.” Dad laughed and said, “That sounds appropriate.”
I quickly learned how to mix his food up for better weight gain with one part oats, one part molasses, one part grain and on top of that, fresh cream from the dairy down the street. In 4-H you go to meetings and learn how to feed and care for the animals. Everyday it seemed like he gained more weight and I would walk him constantly in order to turn the fat into muscle. We didn’t have a scale at the time, but the diary farm down the street did.
The day finally came to show Buck to the judge. I was extremely nervous and a little sad. I had trained for many months for the judging competition. I had to get a blue ribbon; there was no way around it. I wondered briefly what I would do if I didn’t get one, but I quickly squashed the thought and focused on winning one instead. The day of the judging is hectic. You have to “pretty up” your steer in order to make him look good. This meant washing him and scrubbing all of the dirt off of his body and feet. Then, you had to comb his hair and tease the tail into a puffy ball shape with hair spray. I was a little sad that day because I knew the time to let Buck go was near. As I watched the judge make his way around the circle of steers and owners around him, I pondered what life would be like without Buck. With the judge getting closer, I suspended those thoughts and focused on the task at hand. Buck looked perfect. He was by far one of the prettiest steers and at the time he was a new breed of cow: A Simmental Angus cross breed.
The judge came around the back of the steer next to me and I had a razor sharp bead fixed on him. He looked at me, smiled and tipped his hat. I did the same and he began the examination. My heart was pounding. He ran his hands down Buck’s coat and then focused on his butt and back legs. Buck was calm and didn’t move a muscle. I had taught Buck not to kick; which if he had kicked the judge, I would have been disqualified right there on the spot. The judge commented on how remarkably thick and shiny Buck’s coat was. He then stood for a few minutes and looked Buck over. It felt like hours. The sweat was running down my face and into my eyes, but I didn’t flinch and kept my gaze fixed squarely on the judge. He nodded his head, said thank you and walked over to the next steer. After the judge finished, he made one more walk around to each steer and then after he completed the circle, grabbed the pile of ribbons on the table he had set up in the middle of the circle. He walked around slowly at first as if he were still undecided. Then he quickly handed out the blue ribbons. I am happy to say that out of the 25 steers presenting, I placed 7th out of the 15 who received blue ribbons. Then the judge gave one steer the grand champion which left nine steers that didn’t make the sale that year. I didn’t get the grand champion but placing 7th in the sale meant I stood to make at least $3,000.00 once it was all over and done with. Winning that blue ribbon was amazing. People treat you differently after you win a ribbon. A sense of accomplishment washed over me as my peers shook my hand and patted me on the back.
That night the sale took place around 6pm. I washed Buck again and fluffed his tail and put clear coat acrylic nail polish on his hooves. A pretty steer also brings in more bids during the auction. When it was all said and done I made close to 3,500.00. After the sale I went over and shook the man’s hand who purchased Buck. He said he thought Buck was the finest steer around and at that time there was a lot of excitement about this new breed of beef cattle.
When all the excitement died down, I took Buck back to his stall. I slowly gathered up my things. Dad pulled the truck around to the barn and helped me load up. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll be in the truck. Let me know when you’re ready.” Tears began to form in my eyes. My stomach was on fire as I walked over to Buck. He sensed something was up. His big brown eyes looked deeply into mine searching for an answer. I started petting his head and gave him a hug. He pressed his face into my chest and let out a short blast of air from his nostrils. He knew this was the end. I touched his face one last time and said goodbye. Wiping my tears away I walked back to the truck and we drove off.