Since December, 11-year-old Ryan Jack has spent two to three hours a day with her steer, Prince. She walks him twice a day for exercise, monitors his diet and brushes and trims his hair.
"There's a lot of primping," she said. "He's super cuddly. He's a pretty sweet cow."
The 70th annual La Plata County Fair begins today and will run through Sunday. Popular events include the carnival, the demolition derby and a rooster crowing contest Saturday morning. Members from 4-H will also present livestock for judges, which can be sold at an auction Saturday.
On their daily walks, Ryan of Hesperus works with the 1,400-pound steer to ensure he is obedient and follows her instructions in hopes he will win a blue ribbon in the 4-H Market Beef category. She had previously shown pigs at the fair, but last year, decided she wanted to try her hand with a bigger animal.
"I started working with smaller animals, and I liked it," Ryan said. "I just enjoy working with animals."
An early love for animals
Ryan's father, Matthew, grew up on a horse farm that also raised cows and pigs. He participated in 4-H as a kid and encouraged Ryan to join.
Ryan, who will enter sixth grade later this month at Escalante Middle School, has been a member of the Mountain Shadows 4-H Club for the past two years. However, she has been working with animals since she was 2 years old when she helped her baby-sitter's kids care for their pigs. That passion continued during grade school, when she would go over to a friend's farm after school and help care for her pigs.
Currently, Ryan joins about 35 other kids once a month in the Breen Community Building in Hesperus for their Mountain Shadows 4-H Club meeting, one of the largest 4-H clubs in La Plata County. At the meeting, they discuss and vote on upcoming community service projects, present seminars and demonstrations and share tips with others about projects they are working on.
"It's a chance for all the kids to come together and talk to other kids that are on the same project," club co-leader Penny Crawford said. "And it's a great chance for parents and kids to ask any questions they may have."
Ryan is relying on her peers at the club for tricks on how to care for her steer.
"Ryan's a great kid," said club co-leader Penny Crawford. "She's very smart, works hard, quick-learner. She is just a good person to be the face of 4-H."
Two years ago, Ryan bottle-fed a calf that didn't have a mother and has been interested in the animal ever since.
'I had to be the boss'Ryan got Prince in December and hasn't taken a day off from care for him during that time, she said. She learned pretty quickly she had to be more dominant with him than she was with the pigs.
"You have to work with him little by little," she said. "He's a lot heavier than a pig, so he can usually do what he wants if he wants to. I had to be the boss even though he's a big animal. I like getting to work with him and seeing the improvement."
Ryan feeds Prince barley, corn and oats to ensure he makes weight, though sometimes she'll feed him apples as treats. He weighs around 1,400 pounds, about 500 pounds more than he weighed in December.
"You want to build up the muscle to make him more muscular and still have lots of fat," Ryan said.
Throughout the process, all participants must create record books with evidence that they have properly raised the animal. The books consist of all interactions with the animal, all expenses, the amount of food the animal has received and a complete record of medications the animal took. Ryan added goals to her book, which included making sure Prince is the proper weight and training him to be calm during the show.
Record books were due to out-of-state judges by July 27.
"They have to have a week to read those because there are so many and they are so in-depth," Crawford said. "It's a very extensive record-keeping system. It is so much work."
The competitionRyan will bring Prince to the fairgrounds today for an official weigh-in and an ultrasound. Steers aren't the only animals being shown at the La Plata County Fair - goats, sheep, pigs and many others will also be judged.
Prince will remain in a pen until Friday when the contest begins. The competition is broken into two shows. The first show judges the animal itself based on its health and the meat quality.
The second show involves the participants and how they exhibit the animal. Ryan will lead Prince through a series of patterns, while judges pay particular attention to how the participant interacts with the animal and how it follows instructions. The judges will also ask Ryan questions about training regimen, diet or the meat industry.
The event is held in the grandstands at the La Plata County Fairgrounds in front of a sellout crowd.
"I'm both nervous and excited," Ryan said.
There are about 25 other participants competing with Ryan. The judges will award the top six contestants ribbons. However, the show uses a Dutch scoring system, meaning that if a participant meets all requirements, they will receive a blue ribbon.
"The main goal is to get a blue ribbon so that your animal is good enough to sell on Saturday," Crawford said.
The auctionAn auction for all animals that receive a blue ribbon will be held Saturday. If Ryan receives a blue ribbon, she could collect between $1,200 and $6,000, depending on the interest from buyers. The better Prince does in the competition, the more money she is likely to fetch at auction.
She hopes multiple buyers will show interest and create a bidding war over the steer. If Prince is sold, Ryan already has plans for the money.
"I'm saving it for college and a car," Ryan said.
Ryan's mother, Dani Jack, is glad her daughter enrolled in the 4-H program.
"I'm not from the world of it, but I really like the responsibility piece, and it teaches the students how to be confident, how to present, how to have those hard conversations with other people," she said. "It really helps build future contributing adults."
Ryan said the experience has taught her a lot about steers and has helped her gain confidence for next year. It has also increased her enthusiasm and determination to become a veterinarian when she's older.
"I've learned to keep doing what you want to do, even though it's hard," Ryan said. "There's days where I don't want to do it, but someone's depending on me."