Nine-year-old Brayden Cook sprawled across James, his 1,500-pound steer, Saturday before the start of the Patrick K. Goggins 4-H/FFA Junior Livestock Sale.
On the last day of MontanaFair, Brayden, a member of the Shepherd Wranglers 4-H chapter was grabbing a few quiet moments with the animal he’d raised from a calf. Like all the youths inside the Expo Center at MetraPark, the Shepherd Elementary third-grader knew this was the day he would sell his steer.
“It’s not the easiest part of the process,” he acknowledged, standing near James who, oblivious to the noise around him, lay on the sawdust-covered ground.
Brayden already has plans for the proceeds from the sale. It will go into savings, he said, first to buy his next 4-H project and eventually to fund his college education. Though it’s a long way off, Brayden already knows he wants to attend the University of Notre Dame.
“My first idea is that I want to be a paleontologist because I’m really interested in dinosaurs,” he said. “And if that doesn’t work out, then I might have some thinking to do.”
Maybe that kind of self-confidence comes from learning responsibility at an early age. Brayden got the steer at the Northern International Livestock Exposition last October.
Then came the weeks and months of getting up early to feed James, wash and dry him, comb him and walk him. The day would start around 6:30, and be repeated early in the evening.
He decided to name the steer after a big, strong athlete. LeBron James, then of the Cleveland Cavaliers, seemed like a natural choice, Brayden said, but he shortened that to James.
The normally placid animal has only gotten away from the boy a couple of times. In one instance the boy and his steer were in a muddy area with little traction when Brayden spotted another heifer with no halter on.
“I got the halter on him and the heifer went running,” he said. “And James went running so they were almost playing and I splattered down on the ground.”
The other time, James discovered a bush in a yard that he used to scratch himself. Brayden let go of the halter because the steer was pulling him into the bush.
“I let go and the first thing he did was go up to the barn like he was ready to eat,” Brayden said.
Mostly, the first-year 4-Her taught his steer how to follow him when he leads him on a halter. It's been a year of learning, he said.
"It's kept me busy," Brayden said.
Brian Cook, Brayden’s father, also took part in 4-H. He comes from a ranching family, though the CPA now works as an accountant.
Cook enjoyed working with his son on his first 4-H project. It teaches kids responsibility and helps them understand the process of where food comes from.
It also provides an opportunity for them to make friends.
“As we come here, there’s people I used to show with in 4-H, and all their kids are here,” he said. “So it’s kind of fun seeing people you haven’t seen in a long time.”
Brooke Johnson, a member of the Huntley Project FFA chapter, was getting ready to sell her 264-pound pig, Pablo, a Hampshire cross. Johnson, who will be a senior at Huntley Project High School this fall, also showed her heifer at MontanaFair through 4-H.
But since each exhibitor could only sell one animal at the livestock sale, she was showing the pig. Raising an animal is a full-year commitment, she said.
“I actually raise pigs and I bred the pigs that I’m showing,” she said. “So that started back in January when the babies were born.”
You’ve got to feed them, water them and walk them every day and every night, Johnson said.
“You have to be committed all the way through,” she said. “You can’t just kind of drop out.”
Roni Baker, 4-H Yellowstone County extension agent, said this year 4-H had more exhibits than any previous year. She praised all of the 4-H and FFA students for all they do over the course of their project.
“They work hard, they learn a work ethic and work skills, they take pride in their project and they learn responsibility,” she said. “Today they’re talking with people and having to do communication skills throughout the year, some recordkeeping and finance work.’
Baker also praised the volunteers who spend their years as 4-H and FFA advisers and take a week off from work to work at the fair.
“It just wouldn’t happen without them, so I always kind of like to promote that and say what wonderful people they are,” she said. “They step up.”