Madison Lefler, 17, has been raising pigs and beef steers for the livestock competitions at the Florida State Fair since she was an 8-year-old. For this year’s fair, which opened Thursday and ends Feb. 21, she’s hoping the beef steer she has raised is a big winner. She’s also entering a young heifer in a competition that judges breeding.
Lefler is a senior at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, where she is active in the National FFA Organization. She talked with the Tampa Bay Times about what it takes to raise animals for competition.
How do you raise a prize-winning steer and pig?
For pigs and steers, you have what you call a showmanship winner and the (animal quality) winner.
Showmanship is how you control the animal. If you want to win in that area, that takes hard work. ... You need to be able to teach that animal while at the same time learning yourself. So, asking people with more experience than you, looking at tips on YouTube or Google, anything you can find to make yourself a better (show person) ...And it’s the same thing for steers. ...
If you want to win in the category of animal quality, the animal that you are showing… we have learned that you need to be willing to spend more money on this animal. ...The extra nutrients, the better name brands, that’s obviously going to cost more money along with supplements that you give to your animal to help it... with its muscling to create better meat quality.
What are the judges looking for in the showmanship competition?
Pigs and steers are different in that area. Pigs, they don’t stand still. They move around. … Basically pigs, you have to keep them moving. That’s the thing with pigs. You also have to practice keeping their head up, so whatever the pig likes – they do like human food, like marshmallows or peanut butter. You can try treats, pig treats, anything to just help them keep their head up. Because the judge likes to see that. And while they keep their head up it arches their back and kind of pushes their backside out more, and it just makes them look more appealing. … And the thing is the judge always likes to see the pig, so never get in between the judge and your pigs.
When you’re showing steers, what are you trying to do?
They need to be still. They’re the complete opposite of pigs when you’re showing. ... You have the side profile and the rear. … The judge, what they like more, (is) how you set up their feet. But usually, if you look at your hands and keep them together and you put one hand just out front of the other, that’s how their back feet would set up. … And you’re going to do that with your show steer (with) a stick with a hook at the end that you’re going to use… gently on their feet. You pull their foot back, (with one) in front. There’s also these special little techniques that judges love to see, like their tails. Sometimes steers will put their tail up, but judges don’t like that. So, you need to learn to control that, you need to put their tail down. There’s also a thing you do with their backs. If you touch right at the tail head, if you take your stick and drag it, it arches their back and it makes their rear side look ... bigger than it actually is. ... To calm your steer down, there’s skin on their neck, it’s called the dewlap, and you take the show stick and if you scratch it with it, they’re more likely to calm down. We like to keep them still the entire time while the judge checks them.
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In raising one of these animals for food, you have to build a bond with it to make it comfortable. Do you get attached to it?
When I first started out, the bond that I created with the animal definitely made me attached to it. So I was attached the first few times I did it. Not necessarily am I not attached anymore to the animals that I am raising, but I slowly started to realize also as I got older... that this is not a pet. ... It’s more like a business; it’s more like a job. ... I raise something for consumers that they will enjoy and they will want to buy, and I’m making money off it, so it is really like a job. As I got older, I kind of had to put myself in that mindset.
Have you won prize money in the state fair competitions?
I have won lots of prize money throughout the years and I can brag about this because with …. all my own money made working on steers, I was able to buy my first vehicle. With all my own money. It was around $14,000.
Do you like living on a farm?
I do really like living in this type setting, the farm setting. There’s multiple different things you learn every day. You gain new experiences; you deal with maybe difficulties or challenges that you eventually overcome. And you know how to face them the next time when it comes to things in the show setting. There’s a lot of leadership skills, too, that you learn. ... But I think the thing that tops all of that is that I am not afraid of hard jobs. It’s definitely made me hard-working.
Not to be crude or anything, but these animals, they’re cows. They’re kind of gross; whatever gross you want to think about, they are. And I’ve gotten to the point where I just have to get over that. They’re dirty animals, I have a job to do, I need to get it done. So I kind of put that into everything. I put that into my schoolwork, I put that into whatever job someone needs me to do. … It teaches me that mindset and it’s a very good mindset to have.
Do you plan to be a rancher or farmer for a career?
The funny thing is that my career almost… has nothing to do with the animals that I’m showing now. … What I plan on doing is photography, so there’s multiple different genres you can do. I could do livestock photography if I wanted. I’ve already looked into colleges with good photography programs. I’m taking classes at my high school.
For more information, go to floridastatefair.com.