Washing Chickens and Spiking Lambs

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I wandered through the livestock arena at the Titus County Fair last week, looking for photographic subjects. Participants, mostly high school students, were grooming their steers, fluffing up their hair with industrial-strength blow dryers. It was warm and aromatic, a familiar smell of bovines and sawdust wafting through the Indian summer afternoon. As always, being at a livestock show evokes fond memories of my two older daughters — both now in their 30s — and their forays into animal husbandry as members of the local 4-H club.

We never tried to raise steers or heifers. That is a tremendous amount of work and expensive. My girls weren’t that committed to putting in the amount of hours required. Kasey, the oldest, started by raising broilers at 9 years old. I built a nice chicken hoop, about 12-feet square, on the top of a hill on our 6-acre place just outside San Augustine. The county agent there was a good friend and provided much-needed advice on where to get the chickens, what type of feed and how much, and other details. He is now retired and lives right down the road from Mount Pleasant. He almost certainly will be fact-checking this piece. Just remember memoir is a tricky thing.

Raising chickens is not terribly demanding of one’s time, and Kasey dutifully fulfilled her chores. Unlike four-legged creatures, one does not exactly bond with chickens. Little yellow chicks are adorable, of course, but after a few weeks one has gangly teenage chickens that are definitely not huggable. We raised eight chickens, with two ultimately being chosen for judging.

After eight weeks, the San Augustine livestock show approached. It was time to bathe the chickens — a decidedly unpleasant task, chickens being short on hygienic habits and averse to water. But we managed to bathe all the chickens in a No. 10 washtub. Soon, the county agent was examining our now fluffy-white chickens, feeling their breasts to see how much meat was there, pinching their thighs.

“Take those two,” he said, and we did. I couldn’t tell much difference from one chicken to another but knew to rely on his expertise. On the day of the show, Kasey stood nervously in a line along with the other participants, holding two chickens upside down. Chickens likely are not fond of being held in this manner, but it somehow immobilizes them. Often, they will fall asleep or at least appear to be.

The judge, brought in from outside the area of course, went down the line feeling the chickens. Poor Kasey was riveted in place, afraid to move a face muscle, holding on to those comatose chickens with all she had. Soon, the judging was concluded. The fellow went up and down the line, placing the entrants from last to first. To our amazement, Kasey’s chickens were crowned Grand Champion Broilers.

She received a nice trophy, and the chickens sold at auction for $700 to a generous local businessman. That is one of the cool things about livestock shows, including here in Titus County. The young men and women who participate can often “win” enough money at the auction to put away a decent amount of money for college, or a car, after the expenses are paid.

The buyer didn’t want the chickens, of course. I found someone willing to slaughter them for $1 apiece. Kasey shed a few tears, but we all enjoyed some of the best roasted chicken ever put in out mouths for the following weeks — trying not to think to hard about where the meat had originated.

Her next project was a lamb that took reserve champion the following year. Lambs are a lot cuddlier and generally friendly. We later entered animals in Lufkin, where the competition was considerably stiffer. Meredith, three years younger, decided to raise rabbits because she thought they were cute. And they were cute but rather surly and uninterested in being cuddled as she wanted to do. She quickly lost interest in raising rabbits, especially after one escaped and was promptly dispatched to the animal kingdom by Dixie the beagle.

Kasey, in the meantime, decided to try raising another lamb. The county agent and I headed to the Louisiana State Fair. He said that was a good place to find a strong prospect. We brought the lamb back in the back of his Chevy Blazer. The lamb did not enjoy the trip and left proof in the cargo compartment of his vehicle. We named this fellow Lambo because of her rambunctious nature.

We never could settle that lamb down. She was mean and apparently unhappy at having to leave her home state for Deep East Texas. Even after two months or so of daily walks, Lambo acted more like a mountain goat than a domesticated lamb. Out of desperation, on the day of judging, I gave her a healthy shot of Everclear down the gullet with a syringe to mellow her out.

I guess I overdosed Lambo with that grain alcohol. She was a bit wobbly on her feet during judging. Kasey’s lamb finished dead last in the competition. I will never forget that stricken look on her face.

Our days showing livestock were over. We still talk about those lambs and rabbits, and washing chickens the night before the show. That is one reason kids and parents raise livestock, to make those types of memories.


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