Youth livestock exhibitors, parents find a way to move forward

Jan Shepel
Youth and their families are finding ways to salvage a livestock show season that went off the tracks due to restrictions and cancelled fairs due to the coronavirus.

With many of this year’s fairs cancelled or modified, the summer season is different for the many state meat lockers who handle market animals from fairs. Many of these local locker plants are staunch supporters of the youth programs and of the farm families who raise these project animals.

Ryan Redmann, who co-owns Brandon Meats and Sausage with John Benson, said that their business has picked up significantly since the coronavirus outbreak, but in terms of working with fairs, it hasn’t changed a lot. “Honestly, at our end not a lot has changed,” he told us.

Normally, his locker business works with the Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Marquette, Winnebago, Dodge, and Alto fairs. While many fairs are being cancelled or modified, he said, buyers are still going to buy these market animals and they will still be processed at Brandon.

“We are doing what we do every year – setting aside certain days to process these fair animals. The scheduling is a little different this year, but we’ll still be doing a lot of it,” he said.

Brandon Meats is so booked that it isn’t possible to get a steer processed at their facility until April 2022. Many of his customers joke that the animals that will be on the schedule then are not even born yet. Redmann said he’s not sure what next summer’s fair season will hold so he’s planning to block off July and August for fair animals to make sure he’s got room in the schedule and will likely do that in 2022. But even that is pretty much what he does in a normal year.

RELATED: Youth exhibitors grateful for opportunities to show

Livestock from the Marquette County Fair will start coming in on July 15 and he figures it’s going to be like most other years. “It is busy every year, but this year is just different,” he adds.

In March, the business went to curbside-pickup only, in order to protect the health and safety of their employees but they went back to normal retail about a month ago when the stay-at-home order was lifted.

Sausage maker John Benson, and co-owner Ryan Redmann, says their business, Brandon Meats and Sausage, will continue to support market livestock exhibitors by processing their fair animals whether their county has a fair or not.

He and Benson have continued the support for youth livestock programs that former Brandon Meats owners Janet and Al Feucht started. They sell a famous five-foot summer sausage and donate the proceeds to 4-H programs. This year, Redmann said they plan to donate an identical amount to what they did last year to all of the 4-H fairs they work with.

One big thing that has changed is that they had offered to continue to hold a carcass contest as in the past. They felt they could bring in the judge and do the contest in their facility, but it isn’t happening in 2020. “Going forward we don’t know how that will work,” he adds.

Redmann said that without a fair or an organized auction, many of the youth livestock exhibitors are marketing their animals themselves. “These kids know who usually buys the animals. This is probably a good lesson for them,” he said.

Mike Clark, co-owner of the Lodi Sausage Company is finding the same thing. Youth exhibitors who would have normally shown their steers, lambs and market hogs at the Dane and Columbia County Fairs and at the Lodi Agricultural Fair, are finding ways to sell them and get them processed with his meat market.

Even as the coronavirus outbreak ratcheted up the pace of his business and forced the cancellation of fairs in his area, Clark saved room on the schedule for the livestock he knew were still out there.

Some processing plants are unsure whether or not they will hold a carcass contest for fair animals. The contest helps youth understand how their meat animals are scored for quality.

“We typically average 20 hogs, five or six beef and a few lambs from the fairs. It’s a little bit more than that this year,” he said. “These kids have worked a lot of this out on their own.”

Childhood touchstones

For many kids and parents, the county or local fair is a touchstone, a link between something the parents did and now are seeing their children do. Becky Hibicki published an essay “The Year When There Was No County Fair” on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation website. It was republished widely in the farm media (with permission.) In it she recalls how her daughter was moved to tears when they learned that the Green Lake County Fair would be cancelled.

“I do understand why the decision had to be made, but the thought of my girls not having the opportunity to show their livestock animals and participate in the Green Lake County Fair makes my heart sad,” Becky wrote.

Becky Hibicki

She grew up showing at this same fair “and it was always the highlight of my year.” She made so many good memories at that fair and as soon as it was over one year, she started preparing and planning projects for the next year.

Becky wrote that she now sees that same excitement in her own children. Mulling over the bitter disappointment of having no fair to go to, she said it was heartening to see her kids get up early and work with their livestock – clipping and walking the market lambs, feeding the show steers and remaining mindful of what it means to have livestock.

“No matter what happens, they are committed to continuing to raise quality market animals that they can be proud of,” she wrote. “They are continuing to work hard each day, training, leading, brushing, washing and feeding their animals.

“Even though there will be no ribbons handed out this year, I know that the life lessons learned this year make all the hard-working 4-H and FFA members true champions,” she wrote.

Hibicki is active in the Green Lake County 4-H program and serves as the general leader for the Three Hilltoppers 4-H Club and is a large animal livestock project leader. In addition to working full-time for WFBF as the District 5 Coordinator, she and her husband Matthew own a dairy farm northeast of Ripon and homeschool their seven children.

RELATED: WI Sen. Stroebel says UW Extension undermining 4-H program

Reached by telephone this week, Becky said parents in Green Lake County – who were upset about the cancellation of this year’s fair – have organized a one-day livestock show on August 9 to be held at the Manchester Rod and Gun Club. There will be no 4-H presence at the event in accordance with state rules. It was organized by an avid livestock committee and a number of parents.

The show for market animals (no breeding stock) will take place in the morning and the animals will be sold in the afternoon and then will be moved off site. She said it will be a “blow and go” show, with steers coming out of their trailers and going directly into the show ring, rather than being “fitted.”

Another show is being organized at the Dalton Rod and Gun Club for dairy animals, goats and small animals, called the 2020 Farm and Home Show.

Many parents were very upset when fairs were cancelled early, but Becky said that it may have turned out to have a silver lining, since that early decision gave many committees and parents the time they needed to organize alternative events.

Due to a farm accident that seriously injured Becky's husband, resulting in the sale of the family's dairy herd, it's unclear whether or not her children – one son and six daughters – will participate in the one-day show.