This Week’s Column: The Final Drive

Livestock shows are an abstract concept. I’ve been going to county, state and national agricultural expositions all my life, so I’d never given much thought to what an “outsider” might think upon seeing their first steer or heifer show. Last week, with the conclusion of the Ohio State Fair, I had reason to pause and consider just such an occasion. One of my oldest and dearest friends, upon listening to me retell the glory of the Sale of Champions (the most successful edition in its history, raising over $200,000 for youth scholarship and development programs), asked me some very pointed and insightful questions about these exhibitions.

Sometimes it takes what, at first, seems like an obvious question to really get the mind working.

Today’s 4-H and FFA members likely give little thought to the ultimate origins of the modern livestock show. What my FFA Advisor once referred to as “Little League for farm kids” holds a few similarities to those fairs and farm shows of old, but their actual purpose for existing is far different today than a century ago.

The first county fairs and country farm expos were very basic affairs that evolved as a way for farmers and breeders to quite literally show off their stock, both for marketing and instructive purposes. In those days, before technologies like Artificial Insemination and Embryo Transfer, a breeder might use such livestock shows as a way to evaluate his herd, or as a tool for selecting the next replacement female or herd sire. These early shows were also good barometers for determining trends in the evolution, so to speak, of the species.

Look back at black and white photos from livestock shows in the first thirty years of the 20th Century, and you’ll see how vastly different an animal looks today than from that era. Everything from body size and shape to confirmation and temperament is different. As the demands of the market and the needs of the farmer changed with time, so then did the selection for certain traits and characteristics. Livestock shows were a way for the industry to literally see the trends, and learn what influential thinkers were looking for as they evaluated the stock in the competition.

Today’s livestock shows still fill those needs, to an extent. Breeders certainly use these events to showcase their stock and promote their farm operation. Showing your animals, however, is not the only venue from which to do such promotion. From the Internet to trade publications, breeders have more opportunity to market their produce today than at any point in history.

Shows, therefore, have taken on more of a competitive nature, and therein have become excellent metaphors for life. Livestock projects in 4-H and FFA teach young people work ethic, responsibility, animal husbandry and well-being, fiscal discipline, and management skills. By working hard and learning a great deal about the proper management and care of the animal, the student can do very well at any given competition. Animal selection, nutrition, and handling are all acquired skills that will serve these students well later in life, as well.

At the conclusion of a livestock show is what if referred to as “The Final Drive.” This is where the winners of each class or division of animals shown re-enter the ring to compete for the overall title of Grand Champion at that particular show. In the spirit of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the show’s judge places each class of animals, leaving only a handful in the ring at the conclusion of the contest, and ultimately selecting a single winner. In life, we work hard and try to increase our knowledge so that we too might advance in our own endeavors, and ultimately end up in the “winner’s circle.”

The Final Drive, of course, isn’t all about winning the show. As the Judge at last week’s State Fair hog show pointed out, there’s only one “winner.” But did the other exhibitors really “lose?” While not dwelling on the warm-and-fuzzy cliché about all of us being winners, in this particular arena I can speak from experience. While I never won “Grand Champion” honors at a fair or show, growing up with livestock and the responsibility of caring for show cattle helped shape my life in numerous ways.

The reasons we show stock today may be very different from the farmers of yesteryear, but the benefits of working hard to make it to the Final Drive are every bit as real, and every bit as important.