Show Mom Diaries: The empty halter

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click image to zoomOh, that empty halter. Oh, you never forget that moment.

That moment your first steer is loaded onto the semi, and you’re handed that empty halter.

That dreaded, empty halter.

Maybe he was a sweetheart. Maybe he was a knot head. But as you carry that empty halter back to your stalls – now missing that animal once part of your barn for months – things are different.

And you’re forever changed.

click image to zoomNo matter how many years pass, you always remember that first steer. For me, it was Tremor the Angus steer. I was 8. For months, we worked together in our Hillsboro, Texas, barn. We grew together and with each show we attended, I learned a bit more about what it took to be a showman.

I was young. Everything was new. And my 8-year-old self never fully grasped what we had accomplished during our final show of the year – capturing the Champion Angus Steer title at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and showing in the Astrodome during a rodeo break for grand champion honors.

We weren’t named grand champion. But Tremor was the champion of champions to me.

Mom and dad prepared me as best they could for what was to come, and Tremor sold in the sale of champions.

The buyers were generous. And the experience was incredible.

But then it was time for Tremor to be loaded onto the semi. And dad returned with that empty halter.

And I wasn’t as prepared as I had thought. 

I cried myself to sleep for several nights. And finally, dad sat me down for a chat. He said he knew it was tough. But showing steers would always result in that end. And if I wanted to continue, I’d have to come to terms with that fact.

So I did.

Oh, I cried a bit every year. But I never allowed myself to get quite as attached to another steer after that first year.

click image to zoomWaylon and Lightning learned from each other during Waylon's first year of 4-H. Our son, Waylon, reached 4-H age this year. And when he and my husband, Craig, found “the one” in an online sale, we purchased him. And Waylon’s first steer, Lightning, entered the barn.

Craig and I knew we needed to be proactive. 

We had many talks with him and little brother, Nolan, about the role steers play in feeding the world. That we must take the best care possible of these animals while they’re in our care. And when it’s time, we must say good-bye, knowing it’s their time to fulfill their greater purpose.

Waylon and Lightning made the trip together to local and state shows, and to the Junior National Hereford Expo in Harrisburg, Pa. Each show, growing and learning from each other. Each show, improving.

And finally, we ventured to our county fair – Lightning’s final outing.

They had a great final show, with Lightning capturing Champion Hereford Steer honors. He and Waylon worked as a team.

Then sale day arrived. Oh, that dreaded sale day.

Waylon, our often-rational child, handled it very matter-of-factly. To him, this was simply the way it worked. This is why we had a steer, and it was his time. (He gets that rational side from his dad. No doubt.)

But Nolan had many questions about where Lightning was headed and how the process worked. And Craig and I did our best to answer the questions honestly and with care.

So Waylon entered the sale ring with Lightning. And when the auctioneer’s chant was finished, Lightning was sold.

Craig led Lightning to the trailer destined for the sale barn, and the boys said their good-byes.

Two entered the trailer. And Craig exited – with the empty halter in hand.

Cattle teach our children so many incredible life lessons. Some more difficult than others.

But the greatest lesson Lightning taught our boys? That even at the young ages of 9 and 6, our boys can help feed the world. And they emerged proud to play a small role in that enormous responsibility.

They’re already making plans for next year’s steer. And they’re ready to do it again.

Without a doubt, though, they’ll always remember Lightning.

You just never forget that first steer.

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Michigan  |  August, 14, 2014 at 09:40 PM

You never forget the first anything you show as a livestock exhibitor. It is one of the best experiences our kids had. But in a way it's kind of sad they have to lose that little bit of innocence in selling the first project. Our oldest cried himself to sleep for three months over his first hogs he sold. I wasn't expecting that at all. After that, he distanced himself from ever connecting with them again.

Natalie Guillory    
Louisiana  |  August, 18, 2014 at 04:24 PM

You're right the first "show anything is never forgotten. Mine were market lambs. My very first a beautiful smokey colored lamb who was possessed to put it lightly. She would be my first breeding ewe but her show companions would leave me with The dreaded "empty halter." However knowing the contributions of not just feeding the world but all the by-product contributions, soft skills gained, and irreplaceable family memories those projects created - I 'd do it again and look forward to the day my children may experience it.

Nebraska  |  August, 15, 2014 at 09:57 AM

I think I had more trouble with our daughter's first steer than she did. I get attached easy so I stayed away from him until fair. Our daughter knows cattle are raised to be sold and we can't keep steers around for pets, and she has the option to do only a heifer instead. But I'm pretty sure she's stronger than her momma!

a weeks    
WA  |  August, 16, 2014 at 01:45 AM

This year was our 6th year raising lambs with our kids and it was our best set of lambs. It was also the hardest for me to let go. Of all the family, I cried the hardest and I have been raising livestock the longest. I think it all depends on the animal and their personality...some of those little buggers can really get under your skin and touch your heart. But, I wouldn't change a thing!

Montana  |  August, 17, 2014 at 11:15 PM

What timing! We just had our first "First Steer" experience this week! I'm so glad to read your reflection and know that other families feel the same way! My 14 yr old son bonded so closely with "Henri" this past year despite knowing how this would end. But as he held that empty halter, with tears running down his face, he knew Henri would always be apart of his heart forever. It has been a few days now and he is starting to talk about next year's steer. I love 4-H for teaching my kids to be gentle, compassionate yet tough and realistic!

Texas  |  August, 18, 2014 at 09:14 AM

Excellent article.

WA  |  August, 18, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Timely, excellent article. Very well said.

Jana Cook    
Wyoming  |  August, 18, 2014 at 01:23 PM

His name was Charlie and he was a big red, white faced steer. I left him tied to a tree in a grassy area of the fairgrounds-the big kids said they would take him to the truck. I had steers for 9 more years and cried with each one. Still get teary eyed when I think of my friends-some won, most didn't, and I rode a couple of them...

Marie Molsbee    
Nocona, Texas  |  August, 18, 2014 at 02:17 PM

I remember my son's first empty halter well. I was just as hard for me as it was for him I think. I though we had prepared him for this end but he still was very sad.

Gallia County, Ohio  |  August, 18, 2014 at 02:52 PM

My son first year showing a steer he knew what came at the of the week "the dreaded sale day " he came out of the ring took his steer back to the stall tie him up came back out and stood by us not saying a word. Grandpa reached down gave him a hug and told him what a great job he had done and said grandpa going to a horse show tonight Brett then said I think I need to go with grandpa to the horse show. He went so he would have to see his steer be loaded.That's when he was nine. He 23 now he showed to he was 19 he loved every minute of it and so did we.

Jimmie Bauer    
Lucerne Valley, CA  |  August, 18, 2014 at 02:59 PM

You brought back a flood of memories. I threw myself on the livestock transporters ramp, no one is taking Charlie to the slaughter house! That was 60 years ago and my first year in 4-H. Dad's words didn't get through to me about where he was going, I must have thought he just made up a story. My Dad bought back that steer, he stayed as a pet and I went on to bred Angus for 20 years. I tried to repay the kindness of all those caring Dad's and Moms by growing up after that day.

ten Strike    
Galena, Illinois  |  August, 18, 2014 at 03:05 PM

First steers are almost always the calmest ones. Parents tend to look harder for a nice calm calf for their little "darling". Also you tend to spend a lot of time bonding and working with your steer then. They become a great "Pal"!!! I could ride my first steer and I bawled when "Lucky" was loaded. At our fair they came to the stall and got them to load on the trailer. I guess they didn't want bawling kids to upset the other steers that were already loaded. I'm sure if you insisted then you could load them yourself but I never once saw mine get on the final ride!

Saprina Harter    
Zion, PA  |  August, 18, 2014 at 11:29 PM

My husband feels this every year, as he is the driver of one of those "semis" (in his case, the cattle trailer). He always has that one kid who is sobbing as his/her steer is loaded onto the truck. He's the one handing back the empty halter, and while he may seem tough as he does it, I've ridden with him the last few years as he drives those beautiful animals to the butcher; he almost always comments about how hard it is for him to see the kids when they turn their steer over to him. Our kids are now 21 and 16...while they have never shown steers, they have shown market goats and hogs. The first year for each of them was the hardest. I think the hardest year for me was the first year my son showed pigs. Can't say I'm much of a pig person, but seeing my sons 250 lb pig sitting on his lap right before they loaded him on the trailer had to have been the most heart-wrenching sight I've seen since he started showing. To know where that big baby was headed was very sobering.

bruceton mills, wv  |  August, 19, 2014 at 05:31 PM

reading this article brought back memories of my son's first steer "scorpion". was aftraid he would get attached and he did...friday before the sale he comes to the camper and breaks down...we both did..explained as so many others have that steers are raised for a purpose and we couldn't keep for pets. 5 more followed; always the last month when you knew the days were numbered we would start "remember he's been raised for the purpose of feeding others", we made it thru and now are starting with our youngest..he so far doesn't seem to give it a second thought..

Gwen Wells    
Coshocton, Ohio  |  August, 20, 2014 at 06:58 PM

He was a black angus and his name was Adam. 49 years ago he was the first of many for me at our county and local fair. The others - Nod, Flirtation, Shane, Shawn, Nikki and Raphael. Shane was Reserve Grand Champion at the Seneca County Fair, Tiffin, Ohio in 1970 our of approximately 150 steers and Shawn was the Grand Champion at the Attica Independant Fair in Attica, Ohio also in 1970. Our steers were picked out of our own feed lot - no club calf sales like today. My sisters and brother had to feed our own animals and take care of them. The only thing we got help with was breaking them to lead. We split the cost of the calves, the feed, the vet bills, etc. When sale time came, we split the profit evenly between the siblings. Dad's thought was one ate more to get bigger and we couldn't pro rate that out - so it was split evenly. The only time one of us got more than the other was when we got a Grand or Reserve Grand Champion - and all 4 of us had at least one!!! Thanks for the memories and allowing me to share them. It was a great time of my life. The life experiences were priceless!!

Patricia Smith    
Las Vegas, NM  |  August, 20, 2014 at 10:18 PM

I am a mother to 5 children who raised and showed every species allowed at our county fair. My daughters reacted the same way with all of their animals. My son was always glad the work was over for a few weeks. Being a 4-H mom has been one of the best experiences of my life. I am now a 4-H leader for over 30 years.

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