Key is to prepare animals before kids show them at fair
She weighs 70.
That's not a problem as far as Maddie Hodge is concerned. Ask Maddie, 10, if she's nervous around her crossbred steer, and her blonde eyebrows scrunch up in an honest expression of confusion.
What's to be scared of?
It's a little different for Mom and Dad, Sarah and Jim Hodge of La Prairie Township.
Even though both showed animals at the Rock County 4-H Fair, where they met when they were 9, it's a little nerve-wracking watching their daughter go into the show ring unassisted.
"You watch her, and it's like... ," Sarah said, pretending to gasp. "You just want her to get back out without crying, getting hurt or getting embarrassed."
The key is working hard so the steer is ready for the fair, Jim said. The Hodges had three beef animals picked for the fair but left two at home.
The only one Jim was comfortable bringing was Mr. Three, who's named after the white mark in the shape of the number three in the middle of his black forehead.
Mr. Three turned 1 year old in March.
"For Maddie, if they're not tame, they stay home," he said. "Otherwise they'd ruin her."
Last summer was a challenging one for Maddie, a fifth-grader at Monroe Elementary School in Janesville. It was her first fair, and she had the biggest steer in the show. He weighed 1,550 pounds—25 pounds over the limit for the meat animal sale, Jim said.
Sarah wanted to crawl into a hole when the audience gasped at her tiny daughter and the huge steer.
But the judge took it in stride, Sarah said. He asked Maddie how much her steer weighed and then announced to the audience, "Look at how well this 70-pound girl is handling this 1,550-pound animal."
"You could just see the stress fall off her," Sarah said. "She totally relaxed."
Getting a large animal tame enough to go to the fair takes many months and lots of help from dedicated adults, Jim said.
Maddie and her parents spent breaks, evenings and weekends sprinkling the animals with water, blow-drying them and walking them in circles in the barn.
At the fair, the repetition of washing, blow-drying and brushing are familiar activities for an animal in an unfamiliar place, Jim said.
It gets the steer in a mindset to pay attention to Maddie, he said.
"I know the blower. I remember the chute," Jim says, speaking for Mr. Three. "You get these calming sounds going. It gets them ready."
Maddie was confident and in control of Mr. Three in the show ring Thursday morning.
The only time she lost her concentration was when Mr. Three sneezed in her face.
"She looked back at me, wondering what to do," Sarah said. "I told her, ‘It's OK. Just keep going.'"
For those not familiar with the beef barn lingo, here are definitions of some words used in this story:
Steer—A steer is a castrated male bovine. The majority of the animals in the beef barn at the Rock County 4-H Fair are steers. They are raised for meat.
Crossbred—An animal whose parents are not the same breed. A crossbred steer might have an Angus mother and a Holstein father.
Chute—A portable stall made of steel pipes. Fitters tie their beef cattle in the chute to keep them still and comfortable while they get brushed and blow-dried.
Why all the blow-drying? Preparing beef cattle for the show ring is called “fitting,” and it takes hours. After a bath, the animal’s hair is blow-dried and kept in place with hairspray. The hair on its legs is combed up and fluffy. The hair on its sides is combed forward. The process makes the animal look long and square, which are desirable traits in the show ring.