Summer heat takes a toll on animals destined for county fairs
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
OGDEN — For months, 10-year-old Danny Edwards has awakened early, carried feed and water, cleaned stalls, and practiced guiding the hog he named Zip around the livestock arena, all in anticipation of showing and auctioning her at the Weber County Fair.
This is his second time participating in the 4-H program. For years he watched his older sisters raise their animals and compete at the fair, but now, Danny was the only one in his family with an animal — this was his year.
But when he herded Zip onto the livestock scale early Tuesday morning, he realized he wouldn't get the chance. The hog was two pounds underweight, making her ineligible for judging and auction.
"We knew it would be close, but we were thinking she was just going to barely make weight," Danny said. "When she was just two pounds light, that didn't feel very good."
The culprit? Utah's summer heat.
Mark Edwards saw his son's tears as the hog walked off the scale, as well as those of a volunteer helping with the weigh-in.
"When he didn't make weight, (the volunteer) helped Danny walk his pig over to the pen where she was going to be for the week," Edwards said. "She told him, 'I think I'm going to start crying too.'"
Jim Jenson, 4-H agriculture and natural resources leader for the state, said it's common to see more underweight animals in a year with extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold. As several county fairs opened, Jenson heard reports from across the state of underweight animals.
"There's quite a few that are a little light," he said. "They don't grow quite as well when it's hotter. The kids keep them pretty shaded up, and actually in better conditions than others have anywhere else They're animals, and if they're a little uncomfortable, they're not eating as much."
Danny was one of more than 30 youth whose market hogs came in underweight for the Weber County Fair this year, after record-breaking heat impacted their diets. Some fairgoers said they have never before seen more than a dozen hogs come in light.
"I saw a lot of pigs right there that were just a little bit over or a little bit under," Danny said.
Vernon Parent, 4-H agent for Salt Lake County, saw a similar scene at the Salt Lake County Fair in South Jordan. Parent estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the livestock came in underweight, though he doesn't believe that's significantly higher than usual, and it's not the worst he's seen in the 14 years he has worked with livestock shows.
"A couple of our other 4-H kids, just tender-hearted, were crying and asking 'just let them show,'" Parent said. "They didn't even know them really, they just felt bad for them because they knew how hard they had worked for their animals."
More participants than usual didn't weigh in at all, Parent said, opting to leave their animals home because they knew they would be underweight.
Market hogs, steers, lambs and goats are sold for their meat, and to ensure the meat is prime quality, they must reach a minimum weight requirement, Parent explained. Animals that don't make weight can't be sold at auction, leaving it up to the participants to decide whether they want to keep the meat for themselves, sell it somewhere else or try to get the animal up to weight in time for the Utah State Fair.
The youth can still show underweight animals in a "feeder class," and compete in showmanship events.
Difficult weather years are a constant concern in the agriculture business, making summers like this one a painful but important lesson for youth in the 4-H livestock program, Parent said.
"There's always tragedy in life, and I think that those can be just as powerful, if not more powerful, of an educational experience for kids than actually making it to the show," Parent said. "Yes, there's some heartache, but if we as parents or adults take those opportunities to help the kids learn and grow from that tragedy, they'll be better people."
Jenson is confident many of the youth who found their animals wanting at county fairs can get them ready in time for the state fair, which runs Sept. 5 to 15 at the Utah State Fairpark.
"Almost all of them will make the state fair, it's just another opportunity later," he said. "It might make the state fair a little bit bigger."
Jeff Nemecek, a resident of Iola, Kansas, has judged livestock events at the Weber County Fair for several years. When he heard how many 100-degree days had hit Utah this summer, he wasn't surprised at the number of underweight animals.
"It really hammers those hogs," Nemecek said. "Hogs in particular, they can't sweat they just want to lay where its cool and they won't eat."
Overall, Nemecek had high praise for the quality of animals he saw after judging the hog show Thursday.
As the Weber County Fair wrapped up Saturday, Mark and Danny Edwards loaded up their hog, never having seen the auction ring. They plan to keep the meat for their family, and promise to back next year.
"I love that when you go to the fair there's lots of stuff to do, and it's fun to compete with the other kids and see what their pigs look like and how they act," Danny said. "I'll keep trying until I can get it right."
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