When November approaches and harvest is wrapping up, my mind always goes back to the North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE) in Louisville, Kentucky. For decades it was the annual World Series of livestock shows for my children and me.
My passion for showing livestock started when I was nine years old when I convinced my father to let me show pigs at the county 4-H fair. This was not something my older siblings were involved with, so I was pretty much on my own. I fixed up a pen for the pigs in the old barn behind our home. Dad inspected it before we went to the fairgrounds for a pig sale. He helped me buy five Chester White barrows and the project began.
Dad would bring the feed home for me when I needed it, but for the most part I was on my own. At the time, I didn’t realize why he always brought a bill home for me with the feed because we owned a feed mill. But when I went in to pay the feed account off after I sold my pigs, the lesson was learned.
I spent hours every day with the pigs, walking them and taming them down. When fair time approached, I built a ramp to load them onto the pick-up truck. Keep in mind I was nine, so the plan was sound, but the engineering was not. Dad came out that morning, and as we pushed the pigs up the ramp, it didn’t take long for them to tear it apart. Dad realized this was not going to work, so he ran to the feed mill and brought back three of the biggest guys he could find. They tore into the pigs and man-handled them onto the truck. We got four on and by this time the fifth one was crazy wild. So, we left for the fair leaving one behind; dad called Bill Reinke at the hog market to come and pick him up.
I remember it was not hard to spot my pigs in the Chester White classes because they were the ones with the bright red ears and tails. I did not have any big winners, but all my pigs placed, and I was hooked. I loved the entire process and was ready for next year. The project continued and I continued to learn more and do better every year. By the time I was 16 I was able to drive, so I was doing it all myself. I worked every weekend and summer on our company farm about 30 miles from home, so I kept my pigs there (we actually had a livestock ramp there). In my ninth year, I finally reached the livestock showing promised land; I had the Grand Champion Barrow at the Porter County Fair! My dad came up to watch the grand champion drive on his lunch break. One of the very good hog breeders at that time said to him, “Virgil, did you pick that pig out?” Dad responded, “That’s the first time I ever saw that pig!”
After I was out of 4-H I helped my nephews some, but when I really got back into showing livestock was when my own kids were old enough to show. My two boys were the oldest and we took off where I left off showing pigs at the county fair. When my oldest daughter’s time to start came, she wanted to show sheep. We didn’t have a clue, but we gave it a shot. She had three lambs, all white-faced breeds. When we got to the fair, we had the only white-faced lambs in the market show; all the others were Suffolk, Crossbreds, and Hamps. Needless to say, she learned how to lose early in her experience, but she had one light weight little Corriedale lamb that was actually second in his class among all the black-faced lambs. The judge, Dan Hogue from Black Hawk College, encouraged us to take the lamb to the State Fair. We did and she had the Reserve Champion Corriedale Lamb at the Indiana State Fair. We were all very excited, even the boys, and we shifted our attention to raising sheep. A few years later we bought a flock of Oxford sheep (52 head), and we were in the sheep business.
While the project was always focused on the kids with the grooming required for breeding sheep, I had a couple partners over the years to help with that. By now we had two more girls who started showing as soon as they were able to hold onto a halter. We would show at our county fair, plus Indiana and several other state fairs, and of course, NAILE every year.
We had our share of success with our livestock over the years and had many county, state, and national honors, but the real success was our children. One comment my middle daughter said that I will never forget one late night rolling into the Kentucky State Fairgrounds with our truck and trailer, “Dad, I’d rather be with you in Louisville than Disney World.”
Showing livestock was indeed a family project that included bottle feeding lambs, chores, washing, grooming, walking, and just a lot of TLC. They all learned hard work pays off. They learned how to win with humility and lose with dignity. They learned that integrity and fair play is the only way to do it, and you don’t have to buy the most expensive animal to win. But most of all, they learned what it meant to come together as a family to have fun and work hard, and it created memories and lessons that helped build them into the fine parents they have all become.
By Vic Heinold