Becky Widner, 18, softly kissed the steer's forehead. He blinked and nuzzled against her.
"I hope I don't cry, but I know I will," Becky said as she caressed the face of the 1,111-pound Red Angus cross Charolais steer.
Becky has spent the past five months raising the steer through the agriculture program at Zephyrhills High School. She admits she's grown attached to the steer — which she named Maximum Destruction — but on Thursday it will be time to let go.
The steer will be sold at the Pasco County Fair, and Becky will load him onto the truck for his final journey as a market animal, one that is raised to become food for people.
Raising a market animal is a serious business that can tug at the heartstrings. Zephyrhills High students like Becky have the friendly but firm guidance of longtime agriculture teacher Rob Brown to help them along.
This year, more than 20 steers have been raised under Brown's watch, and his students hope for good sale prices Thursday night.
The kids raise the animals. And the experience helps raise the kids.
"I like to think of it as raising kids instead of corn," says Brown, originally from Ohio.
Each student keeps a comprehensive written history of their animal project, noting expenses and feed used as it correlates with daily weight gain. The business-style journal also includes photos, personal business letters to potential buyers and a story detailing the experience. The record books were submitted to Brown last week.
Becky, for instance, bought her steer Sept. 12 for $500 and spent $1,716.86 raising him. She hopes his selling price will reach $2,500, giving her a nearly $800 profit she'll use in studies to become a veterinarian.
Students train their steers to walk on a lead and "show" properly. They clip hair, weigh and measure the growing animals, trim and polish hooves, cut off warts and horns, and treat many ailments. Brown is beside them all the way with hands-on learning at the lab farm a few miles from the main school.
"Together we have been kicked, butted, dragged, stomped on and generally battered. For all this they may sell their steer for as little as $2 per pound and a max of $5 per pound," Brown wrote in a note to teachers justifying student absences from other classes this week as they work with their steers at the Pasco County Fairgrounds.
Steers aren't the only market animals that students raise. Others like Edith Wolcott, 17, and Tyler Martin, 16, have raised pigs that will go on sale this week.
Edith's Princess, a 240-pound Hampshire breed, distinctive black with a white band, is clipped, groomed and ready for sale. Princess may be bought for breeding or as a market animal.
"If whoever buys her keeps her, I hope they take really good care of her," said Wolcott, who praised Brown for his help.
Brown has taught agriculture and sponsored the Future Farmers of America at Zephyrhills High for 18 years.
Parents appreciate Brown's lessons in the hands-on setting.
"He teaches responsibility and leadership, letting the kids be in charge," said Greta Bernosky, whose daughter Emily, 15, is an honor student in Brown's class and raised a steer last year.
Many projects are underway in the school agriculture department. Students are repairing a large tractor and working to restore an 1860s stage coach donated to the agriculture department by Dr. Steve Miller, a Dade City equine veterinarian.
Students constructed a red barn on a trailer and use it for making and selling boiled peanuts at football games and other local functions. Money earned supports the agriculture program.
Pasco County schools supplemental fees add $600 to $3,000 to the program, depending on availability of funds. Brown sounds like a businessman clicking off expenses, noting that hay is a large outlay and last week he had to buy new clippers totaling $600.
Brown started at Zephyrhills High in 1992 with 75 students in the agriculture program. Last year he had 153 students. This year it dropped to 127, which he attributes to students moving because of the difficult economy.
Brown emphasizes kids working together. He guides one student teaching another how to use a "show stick" with his steer preparing for the fair arena, demonstrates proper steer harnessing, gives injections to a squealing pig and offers students advice, sometimes exchanging friendly banter.
He acknowledges the vast support of the community for the agriculture program. Warm respect for Brown comes at every turn.
At the land lab near school, a pickup arrives. Brown chats with two young fellows who dropped by to say hello. The truck turns to leave and one fellow calls out, "Bye. Love you, Mr. Brown!"
Gail Diederich can be reached at email@example.com.