As the county fair season winds down across Washington state, many 4-H kids have discovered that Mother Nature has a cruel side. Record-breaking heat dampened the youths’ prospects of bringing home prize ribbons and cash for their farm animals.
In hotter parts of the state, the number of critters that didn’t gain enough weight to compete in the fairs’ market shows shot up from previous years, 4-H coordinators report. That’s because when the weather is sizzling hot, just as humans are more likely to poke at a plate of spaghetti, farm animals tend to pick at their feed.
“We’ve heard from a number of parents and 4-Hers that their animals, especially the swine and sheep, cut back on eating in the heat, which probably explains why more animals than usual didn’t make the minimum weight requirements,” said Natalie Kinion, Washington State University Extension 4-H Youth Development specialist for Benton and Franklin counties.
Pigs in particular felt Mother Nature’s assault, said WSU livestock specialist Don Llewellyn. Because pigs don’t sweat and carry loads of body fat, “their threshold is about 80 degrees before they need outside help cooling off,” he said. “We had numerous days when the temperatures far exceeded that.”
At the West Valley Fair in Wiley City, 30 pigs didn’t make weight.
“That’s definitely not typical,” said Rick Nicholas who served as a 4-H fair superintendent. “It’s been hot before but not for such a long stretch,” he said, referring to 20-plus days of 90 degree and higher temperatures in June and July.
Kids who enter 4-H livestock fair competitions typically spend many months raising, feeding and grooming their animals, explained Kinion.
“It’s a lot of responsibility. When that pig or sheep doesn’t make weight, it’s a big letdown,” she said.
Brooklyn Shultz, 14, has indeed been let down. Her pig, Oreo, whom she raised since babyhood, didn’t make weight.
When temperatures soared into triple digits in Prosser, Oreo stopped eating. And despite attempts to cool her with hose sprays, mud holes and makeshift shade, “she moved all slow and barely wanted to open her mouth,” said Shultz, who awoke at 5 each morning to attend to Oreo in a pen outside the family home. “I kept trying to keep her comfortable but all she wanted to do is lie down.”
After the temperatures dipped, Oreo’s appetite increased and Shultz fed her a concoction of cake mix, eggs and goat milk to pack on the pounds. Even so, during the weigh-in for the Yakima Valley Fair and Rodeo, Oreo was five pounds too light. That meant she couldn’t be judged at the market show or sold at auction.
“I felt like, Darn! I had failed in some way,” recalled Shultz.
So Oreo came home, where she’ll be slaughtered for meat and stored in the family freezer.
“I like her, but by now I’m used to the idea that sometimes we eat animals that live pretty much in our back yard,” said the soon-to-be eighth grader. “I just wish I could have sold her.”
Hang in there, advises WSU’s Llewellyn, himself a former 4-Her.
“I’ve been around livestock for 45 years, much of that time spent here in Washington state,” he said. “This has been an unusually tough summer. At the same time, I think it has taught 4-H kids an important lesson – that when it comes to farming and ranching, Mother Nature is boss.”