“You may have to take the 4-H heifers home and wait for the proper paperwork to be completed,” said the veterinarian from Blackwater Veterinarian Services. “They are missing their rabies-shot certifications.” This was distressing because my Highland Rider 4-Hers had been preparing for the Hopkinton Fair for months. The children and their groomed cattle waited patiently while the adults worked on a solution.
Because rabies is a deadly disease that can transfer from animals to humans, proof is required that each critter has been vaccinated.
Our first load of cattle had arrived with all their paperwork in order. This year I brought two teams of steers. My white Highlanders, 2-year-old Ben and Snuff, are classified as “working steers” and my 6-year-old black Scottish Highlanders, Topper and Stash, are “oxen.” That's because age 4 is the cutoff between working steers and oxen.
But age doesn't determine the class in which the teams will compete-that's done by weight. For instance, my 2-year-old steers together weigh 1,205 pounds, which means they compete with teams weighing 1,400 pounds or less. Together, Topper and Stash weigh 2,990 pounds, so they compete with other heavyweights.
I entered Topper and Stash in the log-scoot event in which teams are required to pull an empty sled around a course marked off with cones. To make the course more challenging, the judge stuck maple saplings in each cone.
These big boys have two jobs that they take seriously: pulling logs and boulders on the farm, and eating brush and little trees to keep our pastures clear.
When we entered the ring, Stash grabbed the first maple leaf that came within his reach. Both Topper and Stash snatched at the yummy foliage, eating their way around the course, toppling cones and losing points. We came in seventh out of eight teams but seemed to entertain the audience, earning loud applause for a lively performance.
We also brought two Highlander cows named Missy and Sarah along with their babies, Steve and Henry, to compete in the beef show. There are dozens of beef cattle breeds, all of which have different characteristics. For instance, Highlanders are suitable either for beef or milk production and are smaller and thinner than other breeds. Herefords, Pinzgauers, and Angus are only raised for beef and are bigger, fatter animals than the Highlanders. To keep it fair, classes are separated by breed; Highlanders compete against Highlanders, Herefords compete against Herefords and so on. Any cattle not in a designated class compete in a catch-all group called “All Other Breeds.”
If the oxen competition is the talent portion of the livestock pageant, the beef cattle are in the swimsuit competition. Judges evaluate “conformation,” which is how closely the cattle conform to the physical ideal for their breed.
For example, a cow's udder is evaluated. As with all mammals, the beef cow's udder is the “milk machine” for their calves, and a good-size udder with small teats makes nursing easier. Other characteristics include body length, big hind-quarters (for steaks and roasts), the “spring of the ribs" (body width) and how the cow walks. The judges explain their decisions to the audience so if you attend a show, be sure to listen to their comments.
The beef cattle and the dairy cattle shows are entirely separate. Dairy cows are expected to have thin backs but enormous udders (for milk production), which would not be proper conformation for a beef animal. To a beef producer like me, dairy cows look all wrong, while my beefy creatures would not impress a dairyman.
Anyhow, my 4-H Highlander Riders were relieved when the corrected paperwork was texted to the veterinarians, and they were allowed to unload their animals.
In the 4-H beef classes, multiple ribbons rewarded the children for months of hard work. The 4-H kids come away from the Hopkinton Fair with happy memories, and back home at Miles Smith Farm, the cattle are still ruminating on their four days of admiration and gracious living.