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I had a cow

The Market Beef Show at the Alameda County Fair
The Market Beef Show at the Alameda County Fair
Rachael Praest

I had a cow. Well, technically, my daughter did -- a big white sassy heifer that we picked from a meat herd last September to raise as a 4-H project for the Alameda County Fair.

The task seemed clear: pick a suitable calf to raise to market weight for auction. In the process, my daughter would learn about responsibility, business, and gain a deeper appreciation for her connection to the food chain. All this happened, but there was something more, an added layer to the process beyond ordinary ranching.

In addition to raising a marketable animal, my daughter had to train her heifer to show. This involved halter breaking a wild animal – a 10-month daily battle of wills that ended in a working bond between teen and cow that you just don’t see on a feed lot. And herein lies the rub: marketing an animal does teach teens about daily responsibility and care. It also teaches them about how to manage and market their animal, but marketing and showing an animal seem to be at cross purpose when business becomes bond.

And this leads me to my current struggle. 4-H does a fantastic job of connecting kids with agriculture and helping to keep ranching alive, but when the auction is over and the animal meets its purpose, it seems so sad in light of the showing relationship.

All know the animal’s purpose from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get attached along the way. An intimate relationship can be forged through understanding of almost any species, but after raising something as large as a cow, or a pig for that matter, it is completely clear why livestock are not pets. The amount of resources they consume and the amount and waste they produce are actually quite shocking; and frankly, many teens are relieved to no longer have that burden of daily care. There is, however, a certain level understanding that needs to be extended to those who seriously raise shown livestock for their loss on market day and a certain level of respect given for their gain.

Market day represents the culmination of months of hard work and dedication in a marketable and showable animal – simultaneously amazing and tragic -- even if the result is not longstanding. Tibetan monks create incredibly elaborate and labor-intensive sand mandalas only to destroy them, thereby demonstrating the impermanence of existence – similarly simultaneously amazing and tragic. We are all here for our moment in time and a 4-H livestock project that is raised with love and care has a clear purpose in life for both animal and teen. Not all of us can say that.

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