Getting an animal to the County Fair takes more than a trailer and an aptitude for husbandry. Exhibitors invest hundreds of hours over the course of the year feeding, cleaning and handling their project animals to make sure each is in the best shape possible.
For Amador Valley High student Cheyenne Harper, 16, of Pleasanton's Abbie 4-H that means studying up on the biology of her animals and practicing proper showmanship -- in addition to the regular care of her family's dozen or so goats, several pigs and a horse.
"I have to practice showing them, walking around and standing them up on their legs. I have to wash them before the Fair and clip their fur," Cheyenne said of her three dairy goats, Nelly, Breezy and Thumbelina. "I'm practicing a lot, making sure my goats look good and conditioned. I just make sure that they have good fur, so I feed them minerals and fresh water, too."
Cheyenne entered the showmanship category -- where she has previously won best in show -- and spent months before the Fair prepping her goats for inspection by professional livestock evaluators. Judges evaluate their mammary system, which Cheyenne improves by feeding her goats foods high in protein, such as alfalfa.
Other participants enroll in the market category, where animals are auctioned and sold at a price per pound. Parker Brown, president of Abbie 4-H, raised two pigs for this year's Fair and entered the market and showmanship competitions.
"When we first get them in early March or late February, we feed them, give them food and clean cages. Now we have to give them supplements, exercising them and giving them certain amounts of food to make sure they reach weight limit," Parker said.
Each animal group has weight limits, and Parker's pigs can weigh from 210-280 pounds, though he's aiming for 265. Animals must also be owned several months before the Fair in order to qualify for market competition.
"You want to make sure that animal has a straight back and good muscle tone. That is why you work and exercise your animal," said Tassajara 4-H member Margie Graver-Dowd, 16. "You don't want a fat animal. It doesn't taste good, it looks ugly and you get very, very little meat off it. A strong, sturdy, lean animal is much tastier."
Margie, a junior at California High School, raised a goat and a sheep for the market and showmanship contests at the Contra Costa County Fair. To make sure her animals were in shape for the Fair, she developed a feeding schedule and tracked her animals' weight.
Exercising animals for a fair ensures that they will handle well during showmanship, Margie added. She placed with both animals in showmanship competitions, and her goat placed first in its market weight division, earning $8 a pound. After months of working with her goat and sheep, Margie made money on what she considers to be an investment.
"This year I'm in the black; before the Fair I was in the red financially because animals are expensive," she said, adding that she paid about $625 for this year's Fair entries. "You add feed and grooming supplies and other expenses to that and it's pricey. This year I made about $300."
The work isn't done once an animal is placed in its pen at the Fair's livestock tent. 4-H members often spent 10- to 14-hour days at the Fair grooming, cleaning and discussing their projects with attendees.
"Since I show all these different animals, I usually have a show every day. I usually get there, clean out pens, feed them breakfast and clean out waters if I have to," Cheyenne said. "Then I get the animal ready for show, cleaning them out, then I have to get dressed and ready. Or if it's showmanship, I study up on quiz questions, then show them."
Parker arrives at the Fair between 7 and 8 a.m. to clean pens and wash his pigs. After morning feedings, all the 4-Hers have a meeting and two to three people are put on "barn duty" -- where members will sweep aisles, talk to the public and change feed bins -- for several hour shifts. Everyone is on barn duty at least twice, Parker said.
"The most difficult part is probably the heat, because it's late June, mid to early July and pigs don't sweat. So we're at the Fair all day cooling them down," Parker added. "The worst part is getting them calm and keeping them focused and stuff. We give them water ... we don't want them dehydrated. We'll wash them twice a day and feed them."
However, what might seem like a whole lot of hard work is also a ton of fun for 4-H kids, many of whom enjoy the long days spent with friends and family. Danville-based Tassajara Valley 4-H, which shows at the Alameda County Fair, has 30 to 40 Fair participants and many in the rabbit category.
"They are there for 12 to 14 hours and have the run of the Fair. They just have so much fun," said Tassajara Valley 4-H Coordinator Christina Riley.
Parker said he enjoys hanging out with 4-H friends from around the East Bay that he doesn't normally see during the school year, and it helps pass the time. Margie added that the atmosphere among 4-H participants isn't overly competitive, and people are very helpful.
"I like seeing people I haven't seen for a whole year. There's a lot of cooperation, everyone helps each other out. If someone needs help undressing a lamb and I'm not busy, I will just walk up to them and help," she said.
Emotions can flare up at the end of the Fair, however, once animals are sold. Even though participants spend several weeks prior to the Fair searching for a buyer, the reality of auctioning an animal can be tough.
"The hardest part is after the auction because you've raised this animal and worked with it and worked with it, and then you have to say goodbye," Margie said. "It's kind of like losing a pet. But there's the thing about the money afterward, and that does make up for it, but it's still not fun."
Parker, on the other hand, doesn't think it's hard to part with his animals. After 12 years of participating in 4-H, he's learned to think of his animals as investments rather than pets.
Cheyenne said that her feelings of loss depend on the animal.
"With my sheep and pigs and market goats, sometimes it can be hard but you know you can do it again next year," she said. "It's harder when you do really good with them and you know you worked hard, so it can be sad to see them go."
The Alameda County Fair has a schedule of animal showings on its website at www.AlamedaCountyFair.com, and the junior livestock auction takes place Sunday morning.
But the livestock tent is open to animal lovers all day throughout the Fair, with 4-H club members in attendance.
After the auction
The junior livestock auction will be held at 8:30 a.m., Sunday, July 7. Rabbits, chickens and hogs are generally sold at the beginning of the auction; and beef, lambs and goats are sold after a lunch break.
Those who buy a pig, sheep or steer from a 4-H member at the County Fair have a number of options. They can take the animal home, usually to breed; have it slaughtered and the meat processed for their own use; or buy the animal to make a donation, but let it go to a commercial market. Hauling the animal to the butcher is paid for by the Fair but the buyer pays for the processing itself.
The buyer pays a kill charge and must specify what meat processor to use; in a few days, the butcher will call to ask how to cut the meat and where to deliver it. 4-H experts recommend that new buyers request a sample of all types of cuts because the "standard cut" doesn't include tenderloin.
Additional charges apply for cutting and wrapping and are outlined in the auction day catalog. Buyers can expect to get about 75% of the hog's market weight back as meat.
For a tax write-off, buyers deduct the market price from what they paid for the 4-H project. If a buyer pays $2.50 per pound for a 220-pound pig, the price will be $550. If the market rate for swine is 40 cents per pound, the buyer can deduct the entire difference, which in this case would be $462.