Crimped tails swished, cattle mooed and the not-so-sweet smells of prized steer permeated NRG Stadium on Friday night, as junior competitors showed off their animals at the 2019 Champion Junior Market Steer Selection of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The steers’ eyes grew wide, occasionally casting a side glance as the judge, Kevin Jensen, walked by the perfectly straight lines they formulated. As he neared Lillyan Digby’s steer, he lifted his hand and slapped the 1,369-pound animal’s romp, jolting him to the side.
Digby immediately burst into tears.
“It’s my last year and it feels great to win,” the 18-year-old from Snyder said. “I spent a lot of hours walking, a lot of back and forth arguments with the steer. It couldn’t be a better result.”
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Jensen was looking for width, muscularity, fat and overall attractiveness — all contributing factors for “beef quality insurance.”
“These are beef animals for consumption,” said Chris Boleman, executive director of agriculture competitions and exhibits. “The cattle that are here are a reflection what the consumer and industry wants, and they have to be raised the right way.”
A lot goes into raising the steer the right way, and kids as young as 8 and as old as 18 take on the duties with enthusiasm — often starting at a young age to continue a family tradition. To the them, Boleman said, Friday night’s competition “is the Super Bowl of all livestock shows,” something they dream of all year long.
Caden Carver, 16, wakes up at 6:30 a.m. every day to feed his steer before school. When he gets home, he does another feeding and grooms and exercises his steer. Carver bought this steer, a Hereford, when he was a calf last spring — but he’s been showing steer since the third grade, keeping alive the tradition his family started in 1986.
“It’s a great time to all spend together as a family,” Caden said.
Friday night was 10-year-old Kinlee Rathmann’s second steer showing. She tucked a light pink button-up shirt into her jeans and tied back her blond braid with a large pink bow. After showing her steer, she stepped away from him and shook out her arm.
“Sometimes they can walk fast and push you a bit,” Kinlee said. “And sometimes my arm starts to hurt. He’s especially heavy-headed but he normally acts well.”
But Rathmann loves raising steer, and despite the physical strain, walking her steer — especially at night — is her favorite part.
Payton Williams, 18, takes her job so seriously that she often doesn’t let her steer sleep alone because of worries that he might get stuck in a rope — or worse. Like the other competitors, she follows a strict schedule to keep her steer in top shape, balancing the responsibility with school and athletics.
Although Williams has been showing steer for four years, she still lets out a few tears when her steer is sold to be consumed.
“At the beginning, you build a really strong connection with your animals,” she said. “This year, I tried to keep my mindset that I’m raising him for something; he’s not a pet.”
Boleman makes sure kids have that mentality when they take on steer showing, starting with an educational program called Quality Counts.
“That’s a part of the responsibility that comes with these projects,” Boleman said. “And it teaches them responsibility, decision-making and teamwork, since they do so much of this with their families.”
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