BROOKSVILLE — Casey Stewart and Nicole Bennett are like twin daughters from different mothers.
They are best friends. Both are in the ninth grade at Hernando High School and belong to the school's FFA chapter. Both want to be veterinarians. Both showed market hogs for the first time at the Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show on Monday.
When FFA adviser and agricultural sciences teacher Rick Ahrens was asked who were some of his hardest-working students, it didn't take him a heartbeat to single out both girls.
Casey's family owns some farmland, but lives in Brooksville. The 15-year-old's experience with livestock had been nil until last November when she chose a 180-pound Yorkshire crossbred for her FFA project.
Nicole, at 14, was attuned to the needs of caring for and managing animals.
Before moving to Hernando County last year, she raised a hog for her county fair in Oklahoma. Now, her family keeps horses on property outside of Brooksville. She selected a Hampshire crossbred, weighing in at 160 pounds.
Their project hogs, along with a dozen more in the hands of students, were raised on the school's farm. While competing against each other, they also had a team mentality as all 14 teens took turns measuring out and delivering food to the hogs each day.
"I was perfectly comfortable with that," Casey said. With a nod, Nicole concurred, "I trusted everybody. The raising was basically the same."
Every two weeks, the girls drew pen-cleaning chores, which they assumed with alacrity.
But Casey and Nicole went the extra mile — in fact, many miles. Every day after school, they walked their pigs to develop muscle and fitness. "The other students didn't interact the way we did," said Nicole "We were the only ones out there."
Casey credited Nicole, and Ahrens, with preaching the need for animal exercise and bonding. Their work was evident in the show ring as their hogs stuck by their owners and responded to taps of the cane, moving this way or that for the judge's best look at them, no cavorting or digging with their snouts in the tanbark. The barrows could have been described as gentlemen.
The girls didn't choose their hogs with conformation in mind, as would experienced stockmen. They had counted on Ahrens, who bought the lot, to have made the best selections.
"I wanted a white one," said Casey. "I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. It won't get white. It's sort of golden." She added, "I didn't want the smallest one or the largest one. I didn't want one too fat in the face," an indicator of a proclivity to lay on fat throughout.
"I wanted a black one," Nicole said. "I didn't want one that had too much curve to its back," an indication of a short loin, one of the high-priced cuts that a packer wants to be long. "I didn't want one with too big a ham," which might grow fatty.
Before entering the show ring, Nicole took a deep breath and said, "I worked a long time with my pig, so I think we're ready for it. Mine's muscular. He's well fit. I think he's good."
The pair were. Nicole's hog, finished at 240 pounds, topped its class of 235- to 245-pounders.
Casey said of her hog, fed out at 250 pounds, "He's not fat. He has a lot of muscle, which is what they're looking for, too."
Casey's entry earned the second-place ribbon in the class for hogs 250 to 255 pounds.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]