For more than 100 years, the 4-H organization has consistently turned out youth excelling in leadership and agriculture. It’s estimated that there are more than six million youth members; roughly one in every three youth in the heartland states of Minnesota, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Through the years, additional offshoot events were added to the core of the program. One event has operated nearly as long, 90 years, and is the premier 4-H stock show of the Midwest.
The AKSARBEN Stock Show, the nation’s largest 4-H show, is held annually in Nebraska. Steadily growing, it attracts more than 1,200 participants. Exhibitors range in age from just 10 years of age, to those finishing their freshman year of college. Additionally, the National Livestock Judging and Quiz Bowl competitions bring another 700 competitors. AKSARBEN (Nebraska spelled backwards) is noted to have provided annual monetary awards of more than $250,000 to exhibitors and the foundation organizing it prides itself on providing opportunities for youth to develop the knowledge and experience to succeed in agriculture or related fields.
For the last four years, Mitchell Osterhus, of Stewartville, has made the trek to Nebraska for the show. “I’ve been in 4H ever since I could be,” he says. Joining in as a Cloverbud member (under third grade), Osterhus joined the Racine Rural Rookies, following his older brother and sister. Over the years, he gradually made his way up and for the last three years has served as club president. “I show at the Fillmore County Fair and I have shown every species, except horse,” he adds. “I’ve stuck with sheep. Last year, I caved and bought hogs specifically for AKSARBEN show.”
Held in early fall, the show was slated for September 28 through October 1 in 2017. “It’s a big stock show and it’s just a show, not a fair,” notes Osterhus. “It’s more difficult than state fair, but not crowded with vendor and rides, and it’s such a clean place that the animals are in. We can only bring so many of each species, so I can only take three sheep, but I’m also taking three hogs. I’m showing a black face ewe lamb bred by Werner club lambs (Byron, Minn.,) and two black face wethers bred by Dee Brothers (Farmington, Minn.,) and Thompson show lambs (Mabel, Minn.,) and three crossbred barrows (hogs) bred by R&K showpigs (Worthington, Minn.,) and Diamond V genetics (Adams, Minn.)”
Considering what’s required, “just a show” and “only” may be putting it lightly. These competitors take livestock and their roles raising, training, and handling it seriously. It takes major commitment on their part.
The process begins early on with selection. Some of the stock is bred out of herds owned by the participant. Others, like Osterhus, partner with a mentor and careful selection of show stock. “I go from farm to farm with my mentor Randy Sobotta and pick out lambs in the first three to four months of the year. I do the same with hogs,” he says. “Then, I start working with them and feeding them separately, so I can get them to their greatest potential.” Stock is put on specific, targeted rations. All of it is meticulously documented by the exhibitor.
The information is recorded for identification purposes for county and state fairs, per each county and state’s rulebooks. The stock isn’t required to be shown locally, but the recordation provides the ability to properly trace the animal’s start to finish process. Once the ID timelines are met, exhibitors must also submit a DNA hair sample by mid-summer and confirm entries. “When we check in at AKSARBEN, they pull hair and match up the DNA to make sure we aren’t cheating the system by bringing a different animal than we had signed up.”
Along the way, exhibitors are also responsible for grooming and training their animals. “This show is a no fit show, so we have to do all the shearing and clipping of animals before we go there (except cattle). That’s a rough part; because this is a national show it’s very tough competition.”
All of the costs related to the livestock are also the responsibility of the exhibitor. Entry fees, except horses and broiler chickens, range from $20-30 per animal. In addition, participants are required to provide or pay for bedding, grooming chutes and tie-outs for cattle, if applicable, and all necessary equipment, feed, and travel. “They give out scholarships that exhibitors can apply for, but we pay for the trip and expenses ourselves,” says Osterhus. “It runs around $300, not including the typical expenses to go on a trip like this.”
Despite all the hard work, participants will tell you it’s more than worth it. For Osterhus, the best parts of competing are the lamb and calf challenge opportunities. “When I had the calf challenge, my sponsor drove up from Nebraska to watch me show. He got on the microphone at county fair and explained what he was there for and told them my steer was a calf challenge, as I was the only one in the show ring.”
“You fill out an application and write an essay or do a skill-a-thon. If you are in the top ten or so you will get a lamb or calf, whichever you applied for,” he explains. “When you get the animal, you get a sponsor who paid for the animal. You write letters back and forth telling them how the animal is doing and you work with the animal. You figure out costs and then, when you get to the show, you figure out if you made money or lost money,” explains Osterhus, who has won both categories in different years. “You get about 66% of the market check.”
Additionally, grand or reserve champion wins will earn exhibitors a spot in the Sale of Champions. The purple ribbon auction has 37 lots, including champion, reserve champion, and third place steer, grand and reserve wether lamb and goat, ewe lamb, meat doe, market gilt and barrow, division lamb and barrow, heifer and broiler. Also included are champion, reserve champion, and third place calf and lamb challenge entries. In 2016, the winning bids on the Champion and Reserve Champion Calf Challenge were $16,000 and $20,000 respectively. No winning bid was less than $2,500.
“As of right now I have the money to start buying breeding heifers, but I won’t expand much until I graduate,” adds the University of River Falls freshman.”
This year will be Osterhus’ final year showing at AKSARBEN and he thinks it’s going to be a challenging one. Partnering with the Grand Island Livestock Complex Authority, the show has relocated to a nearly 500,000-square-foot, state of the art facility in Omaha. “I’m not sure what I will be getting into. It’s going to a whole different set up.”
Still, he’s up for the task. Regardless of the hurdles, events like these can play out long term for exhibitors, both in knowledge and skill, and in having a hand in the continuation of agricultural tradition. “The reason I show so much is because I want to get my name out there. I want my name to be heard so I’m not a no-name when I have my own herd,” he says. “Someday I will have my own herd of show animals.”