The young exhibitors showing wether lambs at the Fort Worth Stock Show reap many benefits for their efforts.
“It’s quite a lesson in time management,” said Marshall Eaton, an ag teacher at Jim Ned High School in Tuscola, and the father of Talyn Eaton, 17, who is showing eight of her 13 lambs this weekend at the Stock Show. “They learn animal husbandry skills and the importance of being responsible for their animals. And it also helps them develop a good work ethic and improve their people skills.”
Additionally, they have the chance to earn some money. Prize money for most shows is usually modest but, for a lucky few, there is sometimes the opportunity to earn a handsome check by selling a champion at show’s end. The champion wether lamb sold for $40,000 at the 2017 Stock Show, for example.
But for at least one of the competitors at this year’s show, rather than being about ribbons or money, lambs are a form of therapy.
“He was born weighing only one pound,” Shea Sprayberry said about her son, Huntter Sprayberry, 16. “He was very early and has come a long way. He has mild cerebral palsy. So it is a little more difficult for him to hold on to the animals. And standing, and bracing [positioning the lamb], and doing things for a long period of time are somewhat painful to him.”
But Sprayberry feels that what Huntter gains from working with lambs far outweighs the difficulties.
“Showing has been really been good for him with his disabilities. It has given him some confidence, and I think it has taught him quite a bit about himself,” said Sprayberry, who is a second grade teacher at Cushing Elementary School, north of Nacogdoches. “The shows provide a place where he can be in the ring with the others and not feel like there is something different about him. In the classroom, it is more noticeable.”
For Huntter, who initially tried showing goats, the joy of showing lies in interacting with his lambs.
“The lambs are a little bit more cheerful, and they like to play around a lot,” said Huntter, who also lists welding as one of his hobbies.
Nor does Huntter mind the work that goes with showing lambs.
“He does everything. He does all the watering, feeding and taking care of his lamb. We are there to guide, but we do not do it for him,” said Sprayberry.
The Junior Wether Show continues Sunday at the Stock Show, which is beginning its final week at the Will Rogers Memorial Center.
‘A bodybuilding contest’
The process of preparing a lamb for show is demanding — so much so, in fact, that Talyn Eaton enlists the aid of a sheepdog to get her animals in shape for the ring.
“We feed them twice a day. After school I go home and work with them, lead them, brace them and exercise them on the track,” said Tayln, who also enjoys playing volleyball when not in the show ring. “We have a treadmill and a track. We put a trained dog on the track, which is about 100 yards around, and we will run [the lambs] around the track a few times.”
These sorts of workouts are needed because, unlike the steers at the Stock Show, which need to be heavy but not necessarily muscular, the lambs try to look strong.
“It’s like a bodybuilding contest, because the name of the game is muscle,” said Marshall Eaton. “The judges are looking for the ones that are structurally correct in their skeletal design and have an adequate amount of muscle for their size and weight. It may not be the largest animal that wins.”
General good looks, however, do matter.
“Ultimately, the judges want to select a champion that represents what the industry needs, with a beauty pageant in there, too. There’s a lot of beauty contest to it,” said Eaton.
‘Predators were too tough’
But, surprisingly, the judges are not looking at the wool. The lambs shown at the Stock Show must arrive shorn slick.
“Wool prices are not what they used to be because of synthetic fibers, and because people want cheap products,” said Eaton, explaining that meat production is the focus of the American sheep industry. “A lot of our wool is shipped overseas now, to China.”
In addition to the erosion of wool prices, the American sheep industry is facing another major problem — coyotes.
“We got out of [the commercial sheep business] because the predators were too tough on them. The sheep and goat business has dropped immensely because of the predators,” said Eaton, who has been an ag teacher for more than 30 years.
But neither Huntter nor Talyn are concerned with wool prices or coyotes. They are more focused on what showing gives them beyond just muscle-bound lambs. Interviewed separately, they almost spoke as one.
“The showing is fun. And I enjoy visiting new places and seeing lots of people,” said Huntter.
“I enjoy the friendships I have developed over the years,” said Talyn, a junior at Jim Ned who plans to attend Texas Tech and pursue a career in agriculture. “And I appreciate the quality of person I feel showing has made me.”