Steamboat Springs If you meet enough 4-H steers, there is one thing you learn about naming these one-ton gentle giants: colors are important. The names can be as simple as Blackie and Red. Some add twists, like Black Jack and Redhead. But invariably, the color of the animal is included.
In a poem first-year 4-Her Shealynne Yeager wrote about her steer, she said it was the "color of the mountainside with no sunlight."
Its name is Black Night.
Although not the most important task, naming the steer is often the first chore assigned to 4-Hers as they prepare their projects for the fair. With only two weeks left before the Routt County Fair, names have long been determined and 4-Hers have been working on the finer points of preparing these animals.
From the stall where 4-Her Daleena Babcock washes her short-horned steer, Red, she can see the new fairground building where animals will be showed this year. Each day, she gives the steer a bath and uses what looks like an old vacuum cleaner to dry it.
The contraption, found in feed stores, creates a nice, fluffy coat, a highly desired quality in a steer.
Although Babcock grew up on a cattle ranch just outside of Hayden, it is her first year taking a steer as she approaches her last eligible year in 4-H. Until this year, the 10-year 4-Her had stuck with horses and sheep.
But in her freshman year at Laramie County Community College, she was introduced to Red, then just a baby calf. As part of a course on fitting and showing steers, Red was one of the practice animals used. Studying to become a 4-H county extension agent, Babcock learned the secrets of clipping hair off steers' faces, fluffing their coats and how to line up feet and straighten backs when showing them to judges.
Over the course of the semester, Red had become a sort of security blanket for Babcock.
"At school, I was away from animals after growing up with them. So I would always go down to the pens and practice with him. It was nice having him around," Babcock said.
After the class was done and Red was showed at the National Western Stock Show, Babcock offered to take the steer and use it as her 4-H project.
Babcock sees her two steers she is also taking another, an Angus named Blackie as gentle giants. And she claims they are a lot more fun than sheep and not quite as much work as horses.
Although the thought of selling Red looms in front of her, for now Babcock focuses on keeping the steers cool from the dry heat and making sure they are eating their daily rations of grain.
In the southern part of the county, the Rossi sisters are doing similar tasks. They have been working with their steers, Blackie and Black Jack, since December.
Proudly wearing the sliver belt buckle she won last year as the Junior Champion Showman, Sarajane Rossi is hoping to retain her title.
"You've got to have a big smile on your face and you have to act like you're having lots of fun," Sarajane said was the winning edge in showmanship.
But the 11-year-old could have some tough competition this year from sister Seanna, two years younger. For junior 4-Hers, the two know quite a bit about what it takes to produce a winning steer and they hand-picked what they think are winners from the family's herd last fall.
The steers are one of nine 4-H projects Sarajane is taking and one of seven Seanna has. They also have horses, rabbits, chickens, sewing and photography, and after that, one starts to lose count.
One of the greatest challenges in completing all those projects is making all the posters to go with them. The two sisters have 13 posters to finish before the fair and they range from thank-you signs for last year's buyers to a poster on Sarajane's veterinary science project on the reproduction system of mares. It is an important subject for Sarajane, whose horse just had a colt.
The projects that take the longest time are the horses. In fact, the Rossi sisters can spend as much as 30 hours a week on their horses as they ride the family's ranch moving cattle. When the family goes on "short rides," mom Ceena said, she knows it is going to take a while and packs sandwiches and water.
"That is their passion. They love horses," Ceena said.
With two younger daughters, Jocie and Jessica, Ceena can only laugh at the thought of what life is going to be like when all four are in 4-H.
But she and her husband, Mark, were both 4-Hers and can easily list the rewards.
"I think there are a lot of lifetime skills you learn. It teaches you to speak in groups, builds up confidence and self-esteem; you achieve and set goals, you work on organization skills and responsibility. It's not easy to quit when you have an animal. You have to see it to the end," Ceena said.
Mark's parents, Joe and Virginia Rossi, helped start the Flat Top 4-H Club, and 4-Hers far older than Sarajane and Seanna remember the perfection Virginia demanded in sewing projects. She is still a leader and her granddaughters spend the night with her on winter weekends to work on sewing projects. And they, too, admit they can rip out just as many seams as they sew together.
Shealynn Yeager is another young 4-Her from a long line of Routt County 4-H members. Daughter of Shane and Forest Yeager, Shealynn has a steer, horse and cake-decorating project and says her favorite part of 4-H is the friends she makes.
In her first year of 4-H, she has done everything from making a cake that looks like a golf course to receiving a friendly head butt in the rear from her steer, Black Night. She is certain he was meant to be a bull intended for bullfighting and points to his version of a red cape, a gray tarp he pushes around the pen.
4-H animals do come with hardships. Steers can step on little girls' feet, chickens claw and in the end most animals have to be sold. It doesn't take long for 4-Hers to become somewhat calloused to the idea of selling for meat was at one time a pet. But the first year always seems to be the hardest.
Seanna remembers the sadness of selling her first steer. The steer was called Penguin, after her favorite animal. And like any good steer name, Penguin the steer was, of course, black and white.