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She Takes the Prize: In the Competitive World of Cattle Showing, a Canaan Farm Competes With the Big Guys

  • Sarah Carter is shown on her first day of kindergarten with her family's Polled Herefords at Hill Crest Farm in Canaan, N.H., on August 22, 2013.  (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Sarah Carter is shown on her first day of kindergarten with her family's Polled Herefords at Hill Crest Farm in Canaan, N.H., on August 22, 2013. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sarah Carter and Erin, a Hereford heifer with good show animal potential at her family's farm in Canaan, N.H., on August 23, 2013.  (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Sarah Carter and Erin, a Hereford heifer with good show animal potential at her family's farm in Canaan, N.H., on August 23, 2013. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sarah Carter is shown on her first day of kindergarten with her family's Polled Herefords at Hill Crest Farm in Canaan, N.H., on August 22, 2013.  (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)
  • Sarah Carter and Erin, a Hereford heifer with good show animal potential at her family's farm in Canaan, N.H., on August 23, 2013.  (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

When Sarah Carter was 4 years old, or maybe 5, her mother put her in front of the pasture fence to take her picture on the first day of school. It wasn’t long before the family’s small herd of Herefords ambled over to check out the dressed-up little girl.

During a recent interview on the porch of the Carter family’s Hillcrest Farm in Canaan, Patsy Carter brought this photograph out to show her granddaughter in what would become her element.

“She wasn’t probably 65 pounds when she was leading a 900-pound steer,” Patsy Carter said.

Sarah Carter showed cattle, mainly Hereford steers, throughout her childhood in 4-H. Her father took her to places like Maine’s Fryeburg Fair and to the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Mass. But the big cattle shows tend to take place in the big cattle towns of the Midwest.

Carter, 21, is celebrating a big success in the largest arena available to her. This summer, a heifer she and her father bred and raised was reserve division champion at the Junior National Hereford Exposition in Kansas City, Mo. That means the heifer topped dozens of others bred in April 2012 and Carter led her in a long procession of two dozen or so prize-winning heifers from around the country.

It was a big honor for a small farm in New Hampshire — Hillcrest keeps a mere 10 head — going up against Midwestern farms that carry 500 to 1,000 head of cattle. Not many New England farms send their cattle to the big Midwestern shows, much less earn major awards. But as she was walking through the show barns at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, people from the big farms recognized her, Carter said.

“It’s kind of like a really good feeling and people know who you are,” she said.

Now a senior at South Dakota State University in Brooking, S.D., Carter is now a part of the world of cattle showing. She chose to go to school in the Midwest because big universities have livestock judging teams. Like her father, Tom Carter, she’s majoring in animal science. She works for Altena Show Cattle, an Iowa family business that raises and sells cattle expressly for show, and hopes to get a job in the cattle industry after graduation.

Her father sent her prize heifer, HFSA Vanna 42Z, out to Iowa in the spring with the understanding that she would be shown and sold to recoup expenses.

“Once she got to Iowa, she really caught on,” Sarah Carter said. The life of a show heifer is a pampered one. In Iowa, Vanna lived in a clean, air-conditioned tie stall. She was bathed twice a day and the air-conditioning was not merely for her comfort but to encourage her coat to grow. Her red-and-white coat was groomed to lie in the same direction, but with a soft nap, like a plush toy.

A heifer, it’s worth noting, is a young female bovine that hasn’t yet dropped a calf. Usually heifers are bred by the time they’re 2 years old and are called cows after they give birth and start producing milk. Herefords, a breed that originated in Herefordshire, England, are raised strictly for beef, so Hereford heifers and cows are kept for breeding stock rather than for milking.

Hereford show heifers are supposed to be “really stout, big-hipped, big-topped,” Carter said, but also feminine, with a pretty head and a long neck free of slack flesh. A heifer should also have a deep rib cage, but not be too tall, signs that the animal will use its feed efficiently to add weight. A Hereford steer generally weighs 1,300 to 1,500 pounds at around 15 months old.

“You want them to be efficient for the beef industry,” she said. “Show cattle are the ideal for where the beef industry is going.”

That efficiency is even more important in the Northeast, where feed is more expensive. “So we want animals that are going to have the most meat ... in the most efficient, short amount of time,” Carter said.

With so little breeding stock, Hillcrest has to pay close attention to the animals it raises. “It’s really important that the few we have are of very good quality,” Carter said.

This is why showing their cattle has been important to the Carters. Knowing what the ideal heifer looks like helps them find the right bulls to breed to their cows.

Her family started to raise and show Herefords when her father was a boy. Through her school years, Carter mostly showed steers. “My cows didn’t really like to have heifer calves for me when I was in 4-H,” she said.

Back then, showing cattle was a family affair, not only for the Carters but for family farms all over New England. As the number of farms has dwindled, so too have the shows. Sarah Carter and her younger sister were the only girls in their 4-H club to show cattle.

“It’s really a big commitment for the whole family,” she said. Conflicts with the school calendar didn’t make getting to shows any easier. The Fryeburg Fair and the Big E start in the middle of the week, which means missing class. And forget about sports: Carter said she was benched on her Mascoma Regional High School field hockey team after missing practices.

“I think that makes it really hard for kids” to participate in livestock shows, she said.

On a warm morning in August, a couple of days before Carter headed back to school, Hillcrest Farm’s cows were taking refuge under a row of pine trees at the edge of their pasture. Far from the show ring, the nine cows and heifers had the dishevelled and satisfied air of livestock at liberty, switching their tails at the flies and gently bumping into each other.

In the barn, the new show heifer, HFSA Erin, lives by herself on clean wood shavings. Unlike the cows in the field, she wears a rope halter, and her head is tied at about the level of Carter’s waist. A fan runs on her constantly, in place of air conditioning. It’s a comfortable life, free of flies. “She like runs in here every morning,” Carter said.

Erin looked as soft and fluffy as a heifer from FAO Schwarz. Her fur is conditioned twice a week. Like Vanna before her, she might be destined for sale.

Vanna’s success in the ring made her a target for cattle buyers.

“A lot of people were intersted in my heifer and I ended up selling her the week after” the national show, Carter said. She didn’t want to say how much Vanna sold for, but allowed that she sold for a lot more in Iowa than she would have in New Hampshire. Referring to Erin as a point of reference, Carter said, “I wouldn’t sell her for under $8,500.” Vanna’s buyer planned to show her at the Minnesota State Fair.

The HFSA prefix stands for Hillcrest Farm Sarah Ashley, a mashup of the farm’s name with Carter’s. Thanks in part to Vanna’s success, those letters now have meaning in the world of Hereford breeding.

“It’s pretty amazing that with just a few head we can be competitive on a national level,” Tom Carter said. “We don’t make much money. ... That’s the reward.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. Hereford cattle originated in Herefordshire, England. The location was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.