Taking stock, making friends

Silver Keck, 17, checks in with one of the pigs she is raising as part of the 4-H Market Animal Project, which will hold its annual auction at noon Aug. 20 at the Island County Fair. This is the eighth year Keck has raised pigs for market. - Cynthia Woolbright
Silver Keck, 17, checks in with one of the pigs she is raising as part of the 4-H Market Animal Project, which will hold its annual auction at noon Aug. 20 at the Island County Fair. This is the eighth year Keck has raised pigs for market.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Thursday, the day before the Island County Fair opens its doors, Matt VanGiesen will be one busy man.

It’s his job to weigh all the livestock that will be on the block at this year’s 4-H Market Animal Project auction.

“Everyone involved with the Island County Fair is in high gear this week, but no one’s busier than the 4-H’ers enrolled in the Market Animal Project,” said Judy Feldman, WSU/Island County 4-H program coordinator.

One of those 4-H’ers busy and working hard is Silver Keck.

Keck, 17, has been a 4-H’er for 10 years. She was an honorary 4-H’er mucking stalls before she was officially part of the club that stands by the motto: “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health.” She began working dogs and soon decided to bring a pig home and also show horses.

Now in her tenth year, she’s just down to pigs and dogs due to time constraints.

She raises all of her pigs for market — usually two at a time — and in the eight years she’s been doing so, none have ever been named Bacon, Hamm, Babe, Porky, Snowball, Napoleon, Hampton, Wilbur or Piglet.

Keck and other 4-H’ers in the market project are busy this week “finishing” their animals and hoping they are sold at a solid price.

They are preparing for one of 4-H’s lesser known projects, but one of its most important.

“The Market Animal Project is probably one of the most powerful opportunities we offer kids in 4-H,” Feldman said. “It not only brings home the important message that meat does not originate from tidy little plastic wrapped packages at the store, but it teaches participants about the importance of keeping our food supply healthy and safe.”

The day before the fair, each animal is weighed to decide if it is truly “market class” or it should be in the “feeder class.” The figures are used to calculate the “average daily gain” scores that will be given to potential buyers to help them evaluate the animals.

The auction will be held noon Aug. 20. Feldman, said it is planned to have 14 sheep, five beef and 12 pigs available to help fill South Whidbey residents’ freezers.

Auctioneer Dale Sherman will head the auction and Dell Fox will help process the animals.

Experts from the WSU Cooperative Extension will be on hand to evaluate the meat to determine if the proper raising methods were used.

During the process time the 4-H’ers will receive further education — an education that has already been accumulating year round.

Vicki Lawson, club leader for Keck’s club, “Whidbey Island Hogs,” said she sees the auction not only a benefit for the kids who’ve been working all year, but as a benefit of offering quality meat to the community.

“It may work out to be a little bit more than you normally pay, but you don’t have to question it,” Lawson said.

Before the animals are auctioned, they also go through a fitting and showing.

Showing’s not that easy, Keck said.

“All you have is a can to tap them and guide them to hopefully move where you want them to,” Keck said. “They don’t always go where you want.”

During the showing, the judges often request the 4-H’ers to demonstrate how much they’ve worked with their animals by requesting them to perform acts similar to dog obedience.

The top pigs — the grand and reserve champion — are auctioned off first.

Everyone else is in pretty random order, but the feeder cows (still quality but lower weight) follow last and often receive the lowest bids.

Not every livestock animal raised through 4-H is auctioned.

“It’s up to the kids whether or not they sell their animal,” Lawson said.

“A lot of people who come through the barns to look at the pigs feel sorry for them, but they’re really happy animals,” Keck said.

Keck can still remember some of those concerned persons sneaking into fair on a rescue mission.

“Some animal rights people came at night and opened up all the pens. There were animals everywhere,” she said.

Silver Keck said she likes getting to know her animals each year.

“They all have such different personalities,” she said.

Take this year’s pigs, for example. Marco is feisty and is easily surprised and startled, while Polo tends to be friendlier, more affectionate and playful. Both are Yorkshire cross barrows (the pigs’ breed and the term for castrated male pigs).

“I have fun with my pigs,” Keck said. “To them, I’m their friend, they look forward to seeing me and they enjoy my company when I come out and pet them or play with them.”

She cleans their pen every day and says that Marco and Polo do a pretty good job keeping their business to one back corner.

“People wouldn’t guess it but pigs are actually really clean animals if you keep their pen clean and give them the chance,” she said.

“They’re really smart too.”

While she visits with Marco and Polo, Keck’s 4-H and AKC show dog, Orion prances around the yard. The 1-year-old Dalmatian comes over to visit the pigs but pays little attention to their snorts, huffs and puffs as they walk around their pen or chow down on feed.

For Keck, she is often able to repay her $400 loan ($200 per pig) and make a profit at auction.

Her mother mandates that a minimum amount is placed in a college fund; the rest is often used to start new 4-H projects or plan for the upcoming school year.

“Sometimes the parents allow the kids to treat themselves a little. We had one mom say all her son’s money was going for college but a little was going for a toy plane he’d kept his eye on,” Lawson said.

Since getting her pigs in April, Keck’s gone through almost 25 50-pound bags of feed a month.

They were just babes in arms, but now they weigh around 190 pounds, which - while no small wonders - is on the smaller size for market animals, Keck said. Each pig has had an average daily gain of three pounds.

“Market pigs are 4-6 months old and will come in at 190 to 280 pounds,” Keck said.

Keck usually brings pigs to market at around 220 pounds. But with only a week left to go the 4-H veteran is getting nervous of her boys’ low weight.

According to Monica Kidder, project leader with the Central Whidbey Cattlemen, the market animal project also teaches kids the importance of borrowing money responsibly, how to set up feed accounts, how to market their product and how to make sure all their debts are paid before they start the market cycle again for next year’s fair.

Feldman said the project is only as strong as the local market and demand for the 4-H raised livestock.

“So many people don’t know that we have this auction and that they can participate,” said Renee Mueller, 11-year leader of the Whidbey Shepards. “It’s really fun, and can be just as educational for the bidders as it is for the kids.”

All proceeds go back to the 4-H’ers to help them cover the cost of raising their market animal and pay back any loans they needed to take out to do so. After that, many 4-H’ers use the remainder as college funding, other 4-H projects and outside endeavors.

“Especially in this era of Mad Cow and Hoof and Mouth, knowing where your meat comes from can be a very comforting thing,” Feldman said. “Supporting local youth in the process is a wonderful bonus.”

Feldman said that people interested in bidding on livestock at the auction or simply want to learn more about the Market Animal Project can visit the 4-H building or any of the livestock barns to learn more. People are even invited to stop by and get a quick course on cuts of meat and how to order a “cut and wrap.”

“Any of the 4-H’ers or leaders involved will be happy to tell you how to evaluate the animals on the block, how to sign up for a bidder number, how to jump into the fray with a bid, what the total cost includes, and how to finalize your sale,” she said.

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