The National Western Stock Show has many unique programs, but one of the most rewarding for the participants is the Catch-a-Calf Program (CAC). Local 4-H members have the opportunity to catch and show a steer at NWSS provided by sponsors.
Each year in January, 40 students from Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas race around the rodeo arena during a performance trying to catch a steer.
Those students then receive a show calf in May, work with it throughout the summer and fall and then show it at the following NWSS.
Shelayne Sheppard, a student at Colorado State University and past CAC participant, won the CAC show in 2013. She participated in the program because she saw it as a good opportunity.
“I applied for the program because I felt it would give me further learning opportunities within the cattle industry. I wanted to be exposed to all facets of the industry,” she says.
Sheppard continues, “I also fell in love with the idea of the program and being a part of something that had so much meaning to it, especially getting to exhibit an animal at a national-level show."
"To have someone sponsor an animal that we caught in a previous rodeo and allow and have faith in a kid to get their work done and be able to exhibit at a national show when some kids will never get another opportunity to do so really made this program amazing for me.”
Sheppard applied for the program because of the additional knowledge she would gain. “Getting to be a part of a program that just wasn’t about giving a kid a chance to show but so much more than that really drove me to applying for the program because there was more to it than just showing cattle."
"The show industry has so much more meaning to me than just showing, and the CAC program offered that to me,” she states.
Many of the students who apply, such as Sheppard, have shown steers – but maybe not at the national level. Other students who apply are new to showing cattle, and it’s something they are interested in.
All of the students receive calves based on a random assignment, and all of the calves come from similar genetic backgrounds to try to make a level playing field. Once the participants receive their calves, they are responsible for feeding and caring for those calves.
Sponsors gift items to the participants when they start, but the majority of the expenses are paid for by the participants.
The students are also responsible for halter-breaking their calves and working with them every day to prepare them for the show. Once they get to NWSS, the students show in one of four classes of 10 head, with an overall champion and reserve champion being selected.
“My favorite part of the program was by itself the show,” said Sheppard. “Seeing all of the hard work and time put in really showed after winning this show. It was a great experience to be able to see how hard work can pay off.”
Participants are judged on more than just how their steer places. They are also scored on their record books, sponsor relations, an interview, production and a showmanship contest.
Record books include information on a breakeven cost analysis, inventory, feed expense record, other expenses, pasture expenses (if applicable), feed change record, performance summary, treatment record, income record, project story, activity list, project pictures and a financial summary.
For their sponsor relations, each participant must write a letter to their sponsors each month, detailing the progress of their steer, what they are doing with their animal and other information such as average daily gain or what they are feeding.
The students are also encouraged to include information about themselves in the letters.
“I like to just look at the kids and see how simple it can be – and how easy it is to write a good-quality letter. They need to spend the time with the calf. Some of them let the opportunity slip by, but I’ve had parents tell me that now, years later, their kids get it,” says Molly Keil, co-superintendent for the NWSS Catch-A-Calf program.
Keil, who was also a CAC participant, believes the sponsor relationship is one of the most valuable parts of the program.
“In retrospect, the relationships that I made were the best part. I am still in contact with my sponsor, and the people I met through the program, I see them later in life,” she says.
The two highest-earning participants whose calves also place in the top four of their class have the opportunity to sell in the Junior Livestock Auction.
The 4-H members who participate in the sale help to raise money for all of the participants. A percentage of the proceeds goes back to the NWSS scholarship fund (which is a requirement of all animals that sell at the NWSS), a percentage goes back to the CAC program, a percentage goes back to all of the CAC participants, and the rest goes to the exhibitor.
The program was started in 1935 with 10 sponsors and 10 boys. In 1974, girls were allowed to participate in the program, and in 2009, two CAC participants were allowed to sell in the Junior Livestock Auction.
The program has allowed more than 3,000 youth to participate in the NWSS and is the longest-running program at the NWSS. Each participant must be a 4-H member, and be between the ages of 12 and 19.
Keil’s favorite part of the program is the participants. “I love seeing what these kids learn and gain and how they grow. For some it is just their knowledge of cattle, and for some it’s learning responsibility. I also enjoy seeing them creating relationships with their sponsor,” she says.
For Sheppard, it was an experience she will never forget. “It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I never thought I would have such an amazing opportunity,” she states.
In addition to the show at the NWSS, participants are also invited to participate in progress shows at the Adams County Fair and at the Colorado State Fair.
This year’s CAC show will be held on Jan. 10, and the CAC contests for the 2017 participants will take place from Jan. 15-17 at the PRCA rodeos.
PHOTO: Students catch a calf during a PRCA performance at NWSS. Photo courtesy of NWSS. Photo courtesy of NWSS.