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Young ranchers answer the cattle calling

DADE CITY — Seventeen-year-old Kayla Barthle pulls on the lead rope as her white-faced steer, Jiggy, leans back, a thousand pounds of beef refusing to follow.

In the deep shadow of the barn, two of nature's most stubborn creatures struggle for control.

Almost 100 years ago, young people like Kayla began raising livestock to show off at 4-H competitions. Since then, most Americans have moved to cities in search of work. Pastures all over Florida — and just outside the Barthles' ranch — have transformed into fairways and subdivisions.

But even with less than 2 percent of the population farming for a living, 4-H still connects young people with the country's agrarian roots.

The Barthles have relied on 4-H to groom generations of children into young ranchers, prepared to take over and, with any luck, resist the temptation to sell out.

"You don't get rich doing it, but there's more to life than money," said Kayla's dad, Larry Barthle, who runs the cattle operation. "You're keeping your family heritage."

Kayla has embraced the tradition. She knows that the lessons learned today could help the ranch survive in the future.

Back in the barn, the blond-haired, pony-tailed girl tugs again. The steer digs in its hooves.

In the early 1900s, 4-H grows out of corn clubs scattered around the country. Land-grant universities target youths to help turn agricultural research into practice. More than 50 percent of Americans live in rural areas and 30 percent of the work force is involved in farming.

Kayla jumps into a feed room where she shovels grain into a hole where it disappears up a conveyor and into a sack that her father holds.

A few minutes later, she's riding shotgun in a big white pickup, opening gate after gate as her dad drives into half a dozen pastures, where some of the family's 1,000 cows and bulls low greedily for food.

A blue sky spreads out above their 8,000 acres, one of the largest cattle ranches remaining in the Tampa Bay area.

The cattle chase the truck, knowing it's feeding time. The loose skin of the Brahman bulls swings side to side. The calves kick and leap — red Herefords, woolly Charolais and
Black Angus.

It's prime calving season when 30 calves can be born in one night.

Kayla and her dad don't nursemaid the young. They let nature take its course. The next time they drive through for feeding, they'll tag the new ones' ears.

At one of the last stops, Kayla pours premium feed, rich and sticky with molasses, into bins for her Brahman 4-H projects. Kayla has learned that by domesticating animals — and in her case, showing them off at competitions — people have an obligation to their well-being.

"It's just like taking care of a little baby. You have to feed it and water it and groom it," she says. "It can't do it by itself."

In 1927, 4-H adopts its pledge: I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, and my country. A parallel organization, the Future Farmers of America, is founded a year later.

Every year, Florida loses more ranchland as families give up the vagaries of the cattle market and succumb to the temptation of developers.

The Barthles have seen houses pop up around their perimeter — many sold in 10-acre portions to urbanites who want to move to the country. To the west is the Suncoast Parkway. To the east is the interstate. As development encroaches, the value of land rises and so do the taxes.

But three generations of Barthles still live on the land, now worth millions of dollars.

Kayla's great-grandfather, J.A. Barthle, staked out the land in the 1930s and started a herd of registered American Brahmans. Descended from the sacred cows of India, they're known for their resilience to bugs and heat.

Kayla's dad grew up on the farm with his six brothers and sisters, milking the cows and drinking it nonhomogenized. They showed cattle in 4-H when the state fair was in downtown Tampa.

"I could go hunting when I was little by myself whenever I wanted to. There was nobody around," Larry Barthle says. "It's good to see you can instill into your children the same feelings on the land."

Kayla plans to go to the University of Florida, just like her parents and her older brothers. She's considering interior design, but a major in agriculture communication is at the top of the list. Her brothers are already making their way back to the land.

"They just love it," Kayla said. "Our whole family lives on a ranch. I think it's so much nicer to live on the ranch than in the city."

Through the Great Depression and two world wars, 4-Hers work with extension agents to bolster the food supply through practices like soil conservation and victory gardens. The war motto is "Food for Freedom." In 1950, one farmer can feed about 15 people.

At the opening day of the state fair outside Tampa, Kayla keeps a firm grip on the lead rope and fixes her eyes straight ahead as she walks her cow around the ring. If the heifer struggles, tossing its head, Kayla throws an angry look back and yanks the rope down.

Both 4-H and FFA teach students about raising and handling livestock: how to manage their weight, keep them from getting sick and understand their skittishness toward people. The programs also develop character by emphasizing responsibility, hard work, sportsmanship and ethics.

At an ethics class in Hillsborough, the teenagers hear a story about a competitor who fixed a rotten board in a trailer by pounding a 2-by-4 over the bad spot. That worked fine, until the heifer they were hauling stepped through it. When they arrived at the fair, some 70 miles later, they had a three-legged cow. Most of its leg was ground down.

Kayla has heard all the lectures before. She competed at age 5 with her first project, a rabbit named Ashley after her best friend.

Now winning, more than learning, is the goal.

"It's a really good learning experience," Kayla said. "Then you just do it for fun."

She hoses her cows down, ties them up, feeds and waters them. She shovels manure and throws it into a wheelbarrow.

The names of two Barthles — Kayla's oldest cousins — tower from the champion board that hangs over the ring where Kayla waits. She soothes her heifer by scratching its back and belly with a show stick.

In this breed show, Kayla competes against adults. The judge is looking for structure and soundness — a cow with a lot of meat that "travels well," or can be moved from pasture to pasture without injury.

The judge, a Texan wearing a collared shirt and a black cowboy hat, eyes the row of animals, then directs them to line up. He places Kayla before the others, pointing for her to put her heifer at the far end of the ring away from where her dad and her brother, Ben, watch.

Her dad glances at Ben and nods, then bounces his leg. His face remains expressionless. Kayla catches their look and flashes them a brief, disappointed smile. The judge hasn't announced the winner. But Kayla and the two Barthle men know.

Kayla just placed dead last for the third time that morning.

"Nothing I can do about it," Kayla sighs, resting her chin on her show stick.

In the 1960s and 1970s, 4-H grows fastest in cities. In Pinellas County, clubs go by names like the Dog Pals, the Dunedin Lads and Lassies, the Upper Pinellas Co-eds, the Lucky Clovers and the Skyway Seagulls.

The next day, back in the same ring, Kayla stands beside her favorite heifer, blowing on her wet, mottled nose as the cow lifts it to her face.

With fewer competitors, this youth competition gives her a better shot at winning. And the event will give her the chance to show off her cattlewoman blood. In this showmanship event, the judges scrutinize how the participants handle their cows, not the cows themselves.

"Now I'm getting nervous," Kayla says.

The judge walks down the line. He asks the teenagers questions to test their knowledge. He whittles the class down to five. He pauses, then sends two more into the line. It's down to three. If Kayla makes the top two, she'll go on to the next round.

The judge motions Kayla forward.

Her dad, watching inside the ring, lets out a disappointed "Aw."

She places third, ending her chances in the state fair.

"I like the competition," Larry Barthle said. "You try not to show it, but you wouldn't be here if you didn't."

Kayla and her dad put the heifers away. He buys her a huge sweet tea at the concession stand, and they share a bucket of french fries. Saying little, father and daughter walk in perfectly matched stride back to the barn.

By 1997, the number of farms in the United States has plummeted to 1.9-million, down from 5.4-million in 1950. More than half of 4-H participants live in urban or suburban areas, working on projects as varied as poetry writing and satellite mapping. A farmer can provide food for about 140 people.

Kayla's last chance for redemption comes a week later at the Pasco County Fair, where the livestock pavilion is named for Albert A. Barthle, Kayla's great-uncle. She is wearing a new belt buckle, which she won when her bull was chosen as grand champion. But now comes the most important contest — the steer auction.

Kayla's parents mingle with Lynda Porter, a big name in Wesley Chapel, where her family owns the Wiregrass Ranch. Last year Porter and her husband, Tom, bought Kayla's steer, Nubs, and a freezer to hold it.

"He ate real good," Larry Barthle says.

The auctioneer starts the bidding on the first steer at the customary $2 a pound.

"Two seventy five, two seventy five, three, three. Two seventy five, three. Two seventy five. Three, gimme three, three now."

A steer lets out a call — mmmoooeeerrrr.

"I think he wants fooouuuurr," the auctioneer calls, and the crowd laughs.

When it's Kayla's turn, she leads Jiggy around the ring. In seconds, Tom Porter, tobacco in his bottom lip and holding a spit cup, has flicked his hand and drawn a finger across his neck, signaling to take it all the way. Kayla gets the maximum price, $3.84.

After expenses, she'll net about $4,000 for her college fund.

Today, about 10 percent of Americans live in rural areas, and fewer than 2 percent farm for a living. The current president of the National 4-H Council grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Outside the barn at the Pasco fair, a trailer grumbles, patiently waiting to be filled. It will take the custom-kills like Jiggy to a small packing house in Zephyrhills.

Along the aisles of the barn, girls say goodbye to their steers, which are tame from attention. A little blond girl with a pink ribbon in her hair kisses an animal's white belly.

A teenager sits with her steer as he lies in the sawdust, his head in her lap. She strokes his face. When he gently pulls away, she pulls him back.

Kayla and her two brothers bawled when they sold their first steers. Now, she handles the auction like a veteran rancher.

"Everything is going to die eventually," Kayla says. "What I think is sad is the steers don't even know what's coming. They're eating."

It's about midnight. The announcer calls more numbers as Jiggy stands alone, almost lonesome, his neighbors already hauled off. He moos occasionally.

Finally the announcer calls Jiggy's number — 167.

"Yes!" Kayla cries, and rests her rake on the wall.

She unties Jiggy, who fights her a little, stubbornly refusing to follow.

A slap on the butt, and he lumbers into the trailer.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374.

Young ranchers answer the cattle calling 05/31/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 9:56pm]

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