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Irons in the fire: Life isn’t fair, but the fair is life

Progressive Cattleman Staff Paul Marchant Published on 24 August 2012

I was a child of the ’70s and ’80s and, as such, was subject to the weird fashion trends of the time. I’ve never been too keen on what goes on in the real fashion world, although I did take note when Lady Gaga made headlines with her dress made of steaks.

I don’t believe she’ll be the next Sam Elliot or Matthew McConaughey as the voice of beef, but you know what they say about publicity. As long as they spelled beef right, I’m OK with it.

My lack of genuine fashion sense notwithstanding, I’ve always tried to stay within a couple of years of the latest cowboy and ranch fashion trends.

I haven’t jumped on the square-toed boot bandwagon yet, but they are kind of growing on me and I am in need of a new pair of boots. I love the classics, though, and the round toe is still hanging in there. I’ve always felt a need to hang on to solid traditions.

For my family as well, I’m sure, as for countless rural-dwelling families around the country, the county and state fairs are where tradition and progress meet.

It’s where Katy Perry is the opening act for the Sons of the Pioneers. It’s where you can chase a smoked turkey leg and foot-long corn dog down with half a pound of deep-fried Skittles.

In 1981, I was nearing the end of my steer showing days. I was still chasing that elusive purple ribbon. I’d never had a grand champion steer.

My twin sister had won reserve champion a couple times (which didn’t sit too well with me because, of course, I was much more deserving), but I had never come closer than the infamous third place. In 1981, though, I had my world-beater.

This was the steer I’d been waiting for. My uncle had a bunch of cows that he’d been developing into some real show steer-producing beauties.

I worked for him off and on in the summers during branding and haying season – and when he needed some mediocre cowboy help. Besides my paltry day wages, my reward was that I got the pick of his steer calves.

The steer I picked was a leggy, yellow, white-faced Simmy cross steer. He had legs that reached all the way to the ground and, by the middle of August, was 60 inches at the hip and weighed 1,200 pounds.

I’ve got a picture from when I won my showmanship class and about the only part of my classy wardrobe that is visible behind the steer is my big, round-topped, wide-brimmed hat with the two-inch Navajo patterned hatband.

Underneath the steer, you can see my wide-legged Wranglers, which were held up with a two-inch wide-tooled leather belt that bore my name on the back. Yes, indeed – I was stylin’!

Unfortunately for me, the steer show judge had more common sense than sense of fashion. Though my big yellow steer may have been the fanciest steer at our little show (fancy being dictated by the current fads of the time), the judge decided to go the safer route and picked a more moderate-framed Angus cross steer as his champion. I ended up in my old familiar third place spot in the championship drive.

It seems ridiculous now but, at the time, I was devastated. Life did not seem fair at the fair. Big Yeller was exactly the kind of steer that was winning the big shows of the time. It seems utterly silly now.

Really … a five-foot tall steer that barely gained two-and-a-half pounds a day and whose mother probably only bred back every third year? If you look at the Wall of Fame at the National Western in Denver, you’ll see pictures of cattle just like him through the 1980s.

My steer was what high fashion wanted! Inefficient as he may have been, he was what the industry wanted. Hindsight, science and time have added perspective.

Practicality won out over fads, in regards to the kind of cattle we now try to produce. We don’t have the best cattle in the world on our place and, to be sure, there are still a few old cows that are allowed to hang around for sentimentality’s sake. However, for the most part, our cows are built to work for us, in our environment.

Lest you think otherwise, this is not a wholesale condemnation of the show cattle industry. The show industry helps us find our boundaries and it showcases our industry and our lifestyle.

This side of a pretty woman, there is nothing I’d rather look at than fancy show cattle. And I’d be hard-pressed to think of an aroma that conjures up more fond memories than the smell of fresh shavings mixed with Pink Oil and adhesive in a show barn.

I’m thankful every day for county fairs and show steers. It’s a huge part of who I am and what my children and family have become.

If you want life lessons, have your kids halter-break a couple of steers, feed them, doctor them, become attached to them like their favorite dog, cuss them, show them, lose with them, win with them, sell them and then lead them onto a truck headed to the kill plant.

Whether it’s in Glenn County, California, Beaverhead County, Montana, or Lavaca County, Texas, it’s a difficult, wonderful and character-building experience.

I’ve competed as a kid, judged I don’t know how many shows and watched my kids compete, lose and occasionally win and, for me, it’s the best of what life has to offer. Even if it isn’t always fair.  end_mark

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