By Sue Henninger
July marked the 45th anniversary of the 4-H Youth Fair at 4-H Acres in Tompkins County. Fourteen-year old Callie TenKate of Dryden was there, showing her Lincoln sheep. According to Brenda Carpenter, Association Program Leader 4-H Youth Development, Cornell Cooperative Extension, TenKate earned Top Junior Score in the Sheep Challenge Contest (knowledge based) and Grand Champion Showman, Champion Ewe, and Reserve Champion Fleece.
This is no easy feat, Carpenter noted. Each species has specific requirements for how to present the animal to a judge. Meeting these requires a substantial investment of time and money, as well as perseverance and the willingness to do all it takes to prepare an animal for judging. TenKate’s next challenge will be the New York State Fair in late August.
The teen’s showmanship journey began at the 4-H Critter Camp, a two-day program that teaches young people the basics of how to show an animal. On the first day, kids focused on mastering the various skills associated with showing an animal. The more experienced 4-H members and animals act as mentors and teachers for the campers. Next, participants get a more advanced feel for what competition involves by presenting a real animal to a “pretend” judge.
TenKate was hooked! She purchased her first sheep from a local breeder and is currently the proud owner of Chet the ram, Nina the adult ewe, and Nina’s daughter, Skylight. Why sheep? “They’re very friendly and have a docile disposition,” Callie explained, “I’m a vegan so I didn’t want to show beef cattle and my sister was already working with dairy cows.”
The Lincoln sheep is a dual-purpose breed, used for showing and for meat. They also have high fleece production. Each shearing of the adult ram and ewe results in approximately 35 pounds of fleece, which can be either sold or processed.
The Lincoln sheep come up to TenKate’s waist, making them the perfect height for showing since she doesn’t have to bend over to put her hand under their chin or behind their ears. Because they’re a larger breed, TenKate feels they often appear robust and appealing to the judges. In the showmanship part of the judging, judges look for qualities like the poise and eye contact of the handler as well as their ability to control the animal. How calm and content the animal seems while being judged is another standard to meet. In the conformity section, judges look at the animal itself. Sheep are evaluated on qualities like their features, overall health, and loin length.
A number of things need to happen before TenKate’s sheep enter the 4-H Acres competition. Her first job is to prepare the sheep pen and her own accommodations. 4-Hers usually sleep in the barns with their animals in campers or tents. Next, animals must be declared healthy by a veterinarian. TenKate also sets up a stationary exhibit outside of the pen which lists the names of the sheep, information about the sheep, and displays ribbons they’ve won.
How her sheep look during a fair involves some work too. The night before the show, she’ll shave their bellies, “square up” their sides and their heads, and pick any debris (like straw) from their fleece. After that, she applies a coating of purple oil to their fleece with a rag, making their coats shiny and luxuriant. Another beautifying technique she uses is applying two coats of polish, black and clear, to their hooves. Ears and eyes need to be cleaned with rubbing alcohol or water. The final touch is a fancy black leather and chain halter instead of the regular nylon one she uses at the farm.
The New York State Fair requires similar steps but TenKate says the process is more involved and the venue bigger and much more competitive. Her father, Mike TenKate, attributes this to the fact that, while there are usually only a few young people showing sheep at 4-H Acres, there can be 30-40 youth competing at the State Fair.
TenKate has learned a lot caring for, and showing, sheep. “It teaches you responsibility because there is a lot to do to prepare them to be shown,” she said. Showing her animals has also taught her how to be successful, along with strengthening her bond with them and coming to appreciate their unique personalities. Having the chance to learn about the life cycle of animals, from birth to the end of life, has been another plus. On the other hand, “You have to learn humility,” TenKate observes. “There will always be people who are better than you, no matter how hard you work.”
TenKate recommends that kids or teens with any level of interest in animals or agriculture consider joining 4-H. The group has given her “awesome animal friends” and unique life experiences along with teaching her things she couldn’t learn from a book, like compassion. She added, “Even if you’re not into showing, there’s many other ways to be part of 4-H. You can do things like make stationary exhibits about food or technology.”
TenKate also serves on the Tompkins County Youth Fair Board. The Board’s function is to make sure that those who attend the 4-H Fair have a memorable and quality experience. Members also work to increase attendance at the annual Fair.
Will farming be a part of the ninth grader’s future? Probably more as a hobby than as a full-time profession she said, “I don’t agree with all of the ethics of modern farming and it would be hard for me to make a profit because I couldn’t sell my animals for meat.”
She sees herself as having a small farm where she could keep animals as pets and perhaps sell some eggs. “I’d keep showing when I had the time.”