Inside The Not-So-Simple Life of a Teenage Cowgirl
Hamilton is not your typical teenager. While other girls her age are text-messaging their boyfriends or downloading music for their iPods, Hamilton spends her time primping her prize-winning livestock for competitions. “Some kids play soccer, but I have my animals,” Hamilton says. For the last 10 years she has been raising animals and showing them in competitions sponsored by 4-H. Her competition of choice is Beef Showmanship, an intricate contest in which judges examine both the animal and how their owners handle them.
Hamilton’s entry in today’s competition is Gilbert, a year-old Black Angus steer. Prior to the event Hamilton keeps her cool, Gilbert does not. The half-ton steer bellows and fidgets. Holding Gilbert firmly by his halter, Rebecca explains that Gilbert’s pre-competition nerves stem from separation anxiety. It’s the first time he’s been away from his fellow barn mates, which include six cows—Tapioca, Topanga, Courtney, Rosie, Janey, and Riley—two goats, four sheep, and 13 barn cats that Hamilton raises on her family’s five-acre farm in Woodbine.
Hamilton is the rare teenager who still uses expressions like “golly” and wears a pink bow in her tasteful up-do—a feminine counterpoint to the mud-encrusted farm boots and no-nonsense jeans she sports while caring for her farm animals. Polite, well-spoken, and a touch shy, Hamilton seems to be a geographic anomaly, a suburban girl with a dollop of Midwestern sensibility.
Her cow fascination began when she was just 6 years old. Inspired by her parents love of agrarian life—her mother is a home economics agent for Anne Arundel County Cooperative Extension Service, and her father is the former head of the Howard County Cooperative Extension Service—Hamilton joined the Clover program, the 4-H’s equivalent of Brownies. Her first “projects” (the formal 4-H term for the animals they raise) were lambs and pigs. “I started because my dad was in it,” Hamilton says. But it quickly became an obsession of her own. “I don’t have any siblings so I used to go out and play with my sheep.”
She graduated from smaller animals to heifers and steer, and by the time she turned 8, she was honing her practiced eye judging local competitions. Last year, she was on the 4-H “B” squad for livestock judging, traveling to other states to size up sundry domestic animals. This year she hopes to make the “A” team. And come fall, she’ll be on her way to Indiana to judge Midwestern livestock. But Hamilton doesn’t just hand out prizes; she collects them. Trophies featuring gilded farm animals line the upstairs hallway of her home. She keeps the ribbons in the basement. She doesn’t like to brag.
Raising animals isn’t all ribbons. On a typical day, Hamilton is up before dawn, lugging 100 pounds of feed for the family’s cattle (she lugs another 100 at night). When she gets home from school, she spends an additional hour grooming the cattle and doing such routine maintenance as putting de-worming medicine on their coats and injecting them with vaccines. Not to mention preparing them for their performances in the judging ring. “It’s like a kid,” Hamilton says. “You’ve got to train them how to act.” That means breaking them into their halters—an often long and difficult process—and teaching animals that weigh nearly as much as Geo Metros to come and stay on command.
“I get really attached to my cows,” Hamilton says, stroking Courtney, one of her favorites. “They don’t care what you look like when you go into the barn. They don’t judge.” She and Courtney share a special bond: Hamilton was late for school one day because she helped deliver Courtney. She recalls arriving at school still buzzing from the event and smelling slightly of newborn calf and mother. She says it was a little hard to concentrate on algebra equations after seeing a calf take its first breaths.
But the reality of life on the farm can be cruel as well as sublime. Not every cow or steer is destined for a quiet retirement. Beef is, after all, the primary ingredient in hamburger. “I normally just show heifers because they’re not a terminal project,” Hamilton says wistfully. Heifers are generally bred while most steer end up in someone’s freezer.
For teens like Hamilton, the grimmest day of the year is the night at the Maryland State Fair when livestock is auctioned off for slaughter. “The beef barn is where most of the tears are,” she says. “Everyone is bawling. It’s horrible.” While not a vegetarian, she says, “I won’t eat any beef I’ve known.”
For today, Gilbert’s fate will be decided in the judging ring, so Hamilton focuses on prepping him for the competition. In an open-air barn adjacent to the show space, Hamilton and legions of other apple-cheeked teens from around the state dressed in identical white button-down shirts, bolo ties, well-worn cowboy boots, and oversized belt buckles—some of which are prizes from previous competitions—spend the first part of the day gussying up their animals. The kids brush, comb, and blow-dry their projects’ coats and polish and trim their hooves. When Hamilton finishes with Gilbert, his black coat, set off by a yellow ID tag clipped to his ear, is smooth, shiny, and just a little bit fluffy. Between getting his hair done and a pedicure, Gilbert looks—and smells—like he’s been to a spa.
When her class is announced, Hamilton leads Gilbert by his halter into the dirt-floored ring along with the five other 16-year-old contestants and their Angus steer and heifers. The group, two girls and three boys, are remarkably composed—impressive considering that they are being judged as much as their animals.
“Actually, in Showmanship they’re not judging the animal,” says Jandell Haines, leader of the Howard County Beef Club. “They’re judging the child as to how well they show the animal.” That means keeping their projects under control, walking them around the ring, and setting them up for the judge’s evaluation. There is also a host of smaller details the handlers have to keep in mind.
“They’re supposed to keep their eyes on the judge at all times. They’re supposed to keep their animal in front of the judge at all times,” Haines says, which means keeping the steer or heifer—known as “the hamburger,” she says— between the kid and the judge, the proper order for an obedient bovine. Once the animal is placed before the judges, the handlers use “show sticks”—long fishing pole-like contraptions—to get their projects into position.
An article by livestock specialist Matthew Claeys offers guidelines for how to show off your project’s best side: “When the cattle are lined head to tail, the feet should be set as if a professional photographer is taking a picture. The rear feet should be staggered so that the farside foot is slightly in front of the foot closest to the judge. . . . By setting the feet in this manner, you provide the judge with a perception of depth and thickness.” Judges also look at the animal’s musculature, whether its back is swayed or straight, and of course, the intangibles. Does it simply have the je ne sais quoi to be a prize winner?
The teens take their turns with their charges, leading them by their halters in clockwise then counterclockwise circles. The judge stands in the center of the ring and issues curt commands to the competitors telling them which way to turn and not to yank on their leads. The judge may also ask the competitors questions ranging from what their animal’s pedigree is to what cuts of meat come from them.
Hamilton looks confident as she leads Gilbert in measured circles through the ring. And he appears to be going through his paces with ease. There’s not much drama. No animal unexpectedly sits down, rears up, or otherwise causes a ruckus; it’s all a rather sedate affair. When the judge tells the handlers to line up their animals for placing, Hamilton gives Gilbert one final twirl before the judge and the handful of spectators in the bleachers, and brings him to the center of the ring alongside her competitors. Despite all the hours spent feeding, grooming, and training Gilbert, Hamilton comes in third. The judge hands her the third-place ribbon, which she accepts gracefully along with the judge’s admonition to keep Gilbert’s head up during competition.
Still, as she leads Gilbert back to the barn, Hamilton smiles. She’s already looking ahead to the Maryland State Fair and to Courtney, her pregnant cow. “When Courtney gives birth next year,” Hamilton says, “I’m going to send out announcements.”
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