Showing animals is exciting, 13-year-old Austin Traynham said over the noise of the rattling generator as he vacuum-cleaned one of his family’s glossy, black-furred heifers.
“It’s fun, just being out with the cows,” he said. “I’ve been out with the cows since I was two.”
Traynham was one of more than 450 animal-savvy, young exhibitors at Western Bonanza Feb. 12 to Feb. 14.
Western Bonanza, the largest student-run junior livestock fair this side of the Rocky Mountains, is open to exhibitors aged 9 to 21. The 26th annual show, held at the Mid-State Fairgrounds in Paso Robles, is the product of a Cal Poly class’s quarter-long efforts.
A junior livestock show is similar to a county fair. There are the booths, animals and food stands offering funnel cake and sausage, but the similarities end there.
Wendy Hall has been one of the show’s faculty advisers since 1997, when she took over for her husband and Western Bonanza’s founder, animal science professor Michael Hall. She explained the difference.
“It’s not a fair because we don’t have a carnival, we don’t have any other exhibits except the animals. We’re really just a junior livestock show,” Hall said, adding that everything from the trade show to the Friday night taco feed is oriented towards the young participants. “It’s really about the kids.”
The children compete for points with hand-raised swine, steers, heifers, goats and lambs. Many of their families came from all over California, and even other states, to take part in Western Bonanza.
Animal science sophomore Alexander Thompson described livestock show-hopping as a way of life.
“My family is in the cattle business,” said Thompson, who has participated in Western Bonanza since he was young, and is helping run it this year. “We traveled to about eight different shows a year, but Western Bonanza was always the big one. It’s the biggest show on the West Coast, the one we always looked forward to.”
Thompson’s experience is not unusual. Sonoma County residents Gennefer Dorr, 20, and her younger brother Davey, 11, also participated in livestock shows since they were young, traveling with parents and often family friends to eight or nine shows a year.
“It’s definitely a family event,” Gennefer said. “Not many people can do it by themselves. It’s a teamwork process.”
Davey said he enjoys showing his family’s livestock. “I show the lambs for fun, just to have the feeling of going out there and competing,” he said. “Walking out of the ring, no matter what you got, you had a good time.”
Winning awards also improves the family’s chance of selling the livestock at the county or state fair later in the year.
Western Bonanza faculty adviser Jacky Eshelby, whose children compete in livestock shows around the state, explained the lifestyle.
“It’s like any other thing that a child’s involved with,” Eshelby said. “Instead of being in club volleyball or club soccer, they’re into showing livestock. This is what they do for fun.”
Western Bonanza is two full, back-to-back shows the same weekend. In theory, a Western Bonanza participant can come away with double the points they could obtain from a normal livestock show.
The fair is also run jackpot-style. Sponsorships cover the cost of the fairground, awards, judges and other expenses. This means that the junior competitor’s entry fees, which are $10 per event and $30 to $40 per animal, are paid back in awards and prizes.
Animal science senior and financial chair Jackie McArthur said they paid out more than $90,000 in money and prizes to the 426 participants last year.
Allotting for sufficient T-shirts, awards and prizes is just one small aspect of planning a show like Western Bonanza, and all of these decisions are made by Cal Poly students in the Livestock Show Management class.
At the beginning of winter quarter, the class divided into eight committees. One committee is in charge of set-up, another takes care of sponsorship, publicity or animal care. Each committee has at least two student chairs, and there are three student managers who oversee the process.
Committee chair and business agriculture senior Annie McIsaac said this is her third year helping with Western Bonanza and her second year as chair.
“As far as taking me into the future, it’s probably the most hands-on thing I’ve done at Cal Poly,” she said, adding that she’s gotten more networking opportunities and job offers from this than from any other thing she’s done while at school.
For a Cal Poly class, Western Bonanza is a way to not only “learn by doing,” but also to enhance the lives of young animal enthusiasts across the West.