The 4-H steer auction, with its cattle being led calmly in a circle on leads, is a popular stop at the Emo Fair. Those not raised around cattle might assume that cattle are naturally that docile. But that walk is just the final product of months of tireless effort, bruises, scrapes, blisters and bloody noses.
“It’s literally blood, sweat and tears,” said Malena Flatt, who is in her final year of the 4-H program. She’s been in 4-H since she was 10, and has shown 10 steers, several heifers and even a few cow-calf combinations.
She’s been joined for the past four years by her friend and roommate Heaven States, who has been showing since she arrived in Ontario from Nova Scotia.
“I had never been around animals my entire life. I was petrified of cows and horses. But I started going around with Malena’s family, and they asked me if I wanted to show an animal, and I said ‘sure! Why not?’ I was literally a town kid coming out to the country, and was clueless,” said States. “But being out here every night, I learned a lot, and gained a lot of interest. You learn so quick.”
Flatt caught the 4-H bug when she was just nine, when her mom took her to watch a family friend in an open cattle show at the fair.
“Sitting there watching, I was just drawn to it. I’ve always been drawn to animals, but never right deep into it until I saw that. I thought, ‘that looks cool – I want to walk a cow around like a dog,’” she recalled.
Flatt has lived her whole life on a cattle farm, so after that year’s calves were weaned, her dad took her out to choose her first 4-H animal from the family’s herd.
“I was just so in love with it. I’m still in love with it, but you couldn’t get me out of the barn,” she said. “The bond you get with an animal is something you have to experience for yourself. And the amount of dedication and hard work that goes into it – that’s the reward for me. Everything you learn, and the responsibility of caring for an animal of your own. Learning everything, right down to the finances of it.”
States agreed – the process of raising an animal from weaning to market brings her a huge sense of gratification.
“It’s so much more than walking an animal in a ring. It’s the countless hours that you spend out in the barn,” she said.
And it is literally countless, they said – but worth every second.
“We can be out there for four hours, and it feels like it’s been 10 minutes. The time goes by so quick,” said States.
The selection of an animal can start as early as birth, if an amazing calf comes along. Others are chosen at around eight or nine months old, as they’re separated from their mothers, selected for their disposition and physical proportions.
And that’s when the work begins. They each spend hours each day in the barn, first adjusting the animals to the routine of feedings and visits, then adding more interaction with time. Many of those hours are spent just being around the animal, slowly building trust – not even being able to touch it at first. The pair will spend hours just hanging out, listening to music, just being in the barn getting the cattle used to their presence.
“That way they get to know, ‘this person is nice. This person feeds me.’ Eventually, they’ll get curious and they’ll want to be around you. It builds off that, and the countless hours you put into it,” said States. “And it finally licking your mitt, and licking your hand, and being able to scratch it more and more. And then being able to put the halter on for the first time, it’s such a huge accomplishment.”
But it isn’t a picnic, they stressed – far from it.
“I’ve had countless bruises, rope burn to the point that I can’t move fingers, bloody noses, split lips,” said Flatt. “The countless hours and the callouses and the rope burn – it’s unbelievable. But getting to the point now where we can tie them up, and we can sit on their backs and they love you touching them, is the biggest reward ever.”
“And getting your toes stepped on is unbelievable!” added States. ‘Even getting squished against the panel by a 1500 pound animal. Then when they finally trust you enough to put the halter on, hold on, because they’re either going to bolt, or you might get dragged behind the animal. And from there, it’s game on! But getting that halter on is such a huge accomplishment, that getting dragged means nothing. You almost welcome it, because it means the halter is actually on!”
From there, it can still be a rocky road.
“Not every day is going to be a good day,” said Flatt. “Sometimes, it’ll be like you’re taking three steps forward and six steps back. But then some days you’re taking leaps forward. It really depends on your animal.”
Desensitizing the animals to the fair environment is another crucial aspect of raising a 4-H animal. They need to be able to live in the fair barn, and endure crowds, curious hands and plenty of noise.
“Anything you can think to desensitize them, we do it,” said Flatt. They’ll often bring their dogs through the barn, toss balls at the cattle, set up cones, drive four-wheelers and tractors near them.
“We even have dance parties in the barn with our animals, and they look at us like we’re crazy. But it’s all in preparation for the fair,” said States.
The goal is a calm, unflappable animal, who loves and trusts people, they said. There’s a lot of pride in people asking if they can pet their animals, and knowing that it’s safe. “It’s the best feeling ever,” said States.
They’re proud that the family’s entire herd has a people-loving disposition, because of the care and attention they’re given. They always come out to greet the family and even guests.
“These cows have never been through 4-H, aren’t halter broken, but they’re still just big sucks, because they trust us and love nothing more than to come and get scratched,” said States.
For young kids thinking about getting into 4-H, the pair recommends that you be prepared to do the work – and do it yourself.
“Is it frustrating at times? Totally. Is it really irritating? Do I swear sometimes? Yeah! But you need to always think, what can I do better. There’s always something you can do better. Don’t quit because the animal has stepped on your toe six times and doesn’t want to walk. Don’t quit because you’ve had two setbacks, or three or four. Because come June, July or August, when you go out to barn and this animal is literally putting its butt in your face because it wants you to scratch it, that’s the reward,” said States.
“And do the work yourself,” added Flatt. “You need that animal to trust you the most. No-one is going to be in the ring walking the animal with you. You need to create the bond yourself.”
This year, Flatt and States will be showing their steers, King and Kevin, (named after the purple Minion from some rough halter training days. But don’t worry – he’s settled into a yellow Minion.)
Look for them and the other 4-H cattle this weekend at the fair – but don’t be surprised if you spot a 4-H member cuddled up with their animal for a nap – their day starts at 6 a.m., and lasts until midnight.
“If we need a nap, we snuggle up with our animals,” said Flatt. “We eat, sleep and breathe the barn all fair weekend, and we love it. There’s nowhere else we’d rather be.”