“All of the hard work teaches you confidence and it translates into all areas of your life,” 17-year old Audrey Ratliff says as we sit at the family dining room table in Winters, discussing 4H along with her sister, Abby, and their mother, Kylie.
Both Audrey and Abby have been in 4H for several years. Audrey has been showing heifers for 7 years and Abby has been showing heifers for 5 years. Kylie home schools both of the girls and Audrey also takes classes at Angelo State University. Audrey and Abby’s father is Chase Ratliff, DVM, who earned his veterinary medicine degree at Texas A&M, graduated with honors in 2009 and works at Chimney Rock Animal Hospital in Abilene.
The 4H pursuits of Audrey and Abby are a family endeavor, with everyone pitching in. The girls each have their animals but they also help each other, as Audrey points out, “Teamwork is necessary to be successful. This year Abby is going to show my steer for me at the Runnels County show because I’ll be competing in 4H nationals.” Audrey’s presentation is, “The overpopulation of horses and burros in the northwestern US.” Kylie who is originally from eastern Oregon, says that since the BLM doesn’t have any land in Texas than many Texans may not be aware of the issue, “People here aren’t always aware of the wild horse and burro issues.” Audrey says that 4H participation has helped her, “All of this work has taught me confidence and helped me with my public speaking.” Audrey and Abby show Cimarron, Hereford and Shorthorn heifers and steer.
Abby says that the work of showing animals along with other 4H areas, such as the 4H skill-a-thon, requires full dedication and commitment, “During show season, on a school day, we feed the animals at 7:30 a.m. and are in school by 8:30 a.m. After school at 3:30 p.m., we work with our heifers for about an hour and a half. We also wash and dry them. It’s a lot of work but it’s all worth it. On a show day, if you show early, you’ll wash your heifer at the end of the previous day. If you show late, you’ll wash your heifer at 4 p.m.” For Audrey, taking classes at ASU means that during show season she is up before the sun breaks the horizon, feeding her heifers at first light and working with them at lunch as well as after school. Both girls wash their heifers at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the show season.
Being as they are dealing with animals, Audrey points out that there are always surprises, such as last year at the Runnels County show when her heifer calved, “She had a calf on January 13th at 10:30 p.m. I’m showing that calf this year.” While show season is demanding and requires a great deal of work, Abby says that it’s her second favorite time of the year, “Christmas is my favorite time.” Kylie points out an important aspect of show days, “Each show differs but most people get to the show barn by 4 a.m. You have to be consistent.”
Another important aspect of raising and showing heifers around the state is the cost. Kylie said that it can be expensive, “We spend about $12,000 a year on grain feed. We feed them wet feed with molasses. We also grow our own hay. But there are also other expenses to consider such as vaccinations, a trim chute that can run you up to $1,200. Hair products for show season run about $1,000. Then there are hotels and gas. We’ve started using Airbnb to save money because we can take our own food and cook it. We like all of the shows for different reasons.”
Kylie says that the Runnels County show is important to the Ratliffs for reasons outside of their own family, “County is important because you are with your neighbors. You see them and support their kids. The best part of 4H is the community, especially for the home-school kids because it helps them socialize.”
The work doesn’t stop for Audrey and Abby at the end of the show season. The girls will work with Chase to calculate how much it cost them per pound to raise the heifers. The advantage that they have is that they keep the heifers and take them to the next show, “You take it from a weaned calf, to heifer, to when they calve themselves. With dad being a vet, he’ll do the artificial insemination for breeding. He takes the girls and teaches them about it and the health of the animal,” Kylie points out.
Abby says that understanding the entire lifecycle of any animal is important, “You have to understand why an animal is a good animal. That’s why we also got into livestock judging, meat judging and equipment identification. You have an animal from it’s beginning until the end.” Audrey says that the work doesn’t end at dinner, “When we’re making dinner, dad will shows us meat and ask us what cut it is. When you’re homeschooled, the learning never stops.”
The butchering of any animal that a 4H kid raises is never easy, but it’s all put into perspective by the program and the family as Abby points out, “Whenever we eat dinner, I’ll say, “Thank you, Charlie the Charolais that we raised and butchered.” Abbey says that it’s important to understand it all, “It can still be upsetting. But you learn to process those emotions and deal with them. I enjoy being able to say that I raised my own food and that I can rely on myself and not depend on anyone else.” Abby says that it’s not only butchering an animal that can be hard, “Last year I had a heifer and we weren’t successful breeding her. I thought I’d be able to keep her because she was a heifer but we let the original owner, who we were buying her from, keep her. That was hard because I had really bonded with that animal.” Kylie says that it comes to more than just purchasing an animal, “Buying the highest priced animal isn’t the lesson. Teaching kids to choose and raise animals, to say, ‘Let’s see if we can do it ourselves,’ is the lesson.”
Over the years, the Ratliff girls have placed up and down the line from Runnels County to Ft. Worth to Austin to San Antonio. In the past, Audrey has won Grand Champion in Runnels County and 1st in San Angelo. Abby has placed 5th in Ft. Worth and 4th at San Angelo.
The work and pride that they put into their heifers is evident around their farm. But there are also other animals that they raise such as Red Angus cattle, horses, rabbits and roping steer.
Audrey sums up 4H the best, “It’s worth it. 4H, all of it, it’s worth it. It is hard work, it is a lot of time and a lot of effort and sometimes the tears come, but it’s all worth it. Community service such as helping the elderly, learning all of the lessons to raise good, healthy animals and the responsibility is important. It helps with all areas of your life and all of it, every bit, is worth it.”