There’s a lot to learn wandering the cattle barns at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in January of any given year.
Cattle can gain 1 to 2 pounds a day during grazing season.
The muscle mass and bone structure of an animal contributes to the price it will fetch at auction.
Don’t dare ask if you can pet a rancher’s cow — it’s a steer. There are bulls and heifers, too, but a steer will bring the best price.
If you take a moment to inquire about its age or breed, the rancher is only too delighted to tell you the animal’s name and history, before allowing your daughter to gently stroke the soft head of a tiny calf, born just five days ago.
I’ve attended the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo every year, save one, since I’ve lived in Cowtown. And every year I spend time in the animal barns and arenas, watching men, women and children interact with their animals — hearing their conversations, asking them questions — I come away with a feeling of awe and humility.
When you’re from the Northeast, the kind of life you see on display at the Stock Show seems foreign, almost mythical.
Cowboys and ranchers are the stuff of legend and folklore; movies and stories.
Here, they walk among us, sporting their Stetsons and Justin Boots. And they aren’t being ironic.
There’s a novelty aspect to the Stock Show as well.
That’s reinforced by a visit to the rodeo, where raging bulls, bucking broncos and the men brave enough to ride them, thrill you to your core, fulfilling every fantasy you ever had about life “out West.”
And while you correctly understand that part of this three-week-long event is for “show” — mutton busting and steer wrestling aren’t typical ranch activities — you realize quickly that much of what you are witnessing is just life.
The people you see represent a whole segment of America you never before appreciated.
The folks you talk to in the cattle, mutton and swine barns didn’t transport their animals to Fort Worth for fun. They are here to work. This is just part of what they do.
They don’t gingerly dodge the piles of manure like the visitors. They sweep them up because that’s what it takes to successfully run a farm or ranch. And they do so without thought or complaint.
You watch a kid, maybe 12 years old, take meticulous care to remove every piece of straw from the rump of her steer and brush its coat until it is lush and lustrous.
A mix of pride and melancholy flashes across her face as she leads her animal to auction. She’s spent the last year raising that glorious beast. Rising early so she could feed and water it before school. Taking the care to see that it was always healthy and content. Laboring over it daily to be sure it was conditioned for the show.
Her efforts are rewarded if it brings a large enough prize — maybe enough to help her pay for college. Despite it all, saying goodbye to her animal will be difficult. She’ll tell you as much when you ask.
It’s evident in the way she carries herself, her graciousness in responding to questions, that she, like her fellow Stock Show participants, has learned more about hard work and sacrifice from raising her steer than many people learn in a lifetime.
She understands what it means to respect an animal and a person. She appreciates the seasons of weather and of life.
Her culture is one that has made an art of living off the land. They are people who are close to the earth. They are masterful stewards of its creatures.
Their ethic of hard work, resilience and faith is thick in the noisy animal barns and etched into the faces of its members. And the faces don’t all look alike, either.
Indeed, the diversity of the Stock Show is striking. Not just the crowd, which runs the gamut when it comes to age, race and socioeconomic status, but the exhibitors, too.
I spoke this year with a Hispanic family who owned a ranch in Texas. They were raising some of the most impressive cattle I’d ever seen. I didn’t inquire but suspect their family has ranched for generations, probably alongside families with equally unique stories.
The events of the Stock Show reflect an industry with a diverse membership. There are the Cowboys of Color Rodeo and the Best of Mexico Celebracion.
The culture of the cowboy, the rancher and the cattleman has never belonged to one race or gender. Neither do its many virtues.
They will be back in Fort Worth around this time next year. I, for one, cannot wait.