WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
In September, Caitlyn Ryherd, 14, watched one of her cows give birth to a calf, a boy, whom she named El Chupacabra. “It was so cool,” she said. The cow had walked from her stall several yards into the pasture, stopping under an oak tree Ryherd’s family calls “the birthing tree” because it’s been such a popular spot for mothers in labor.
Caitlyn grabbed her phone and zoomed in to video, because her mom wasn’t there, and Caitlyn knew she’d be sorry to miss it. El Chupacabra is small, maybe too small to be shown and sold at the Manatee County Fair next January. But Caitlyn, her twin sister Alex and her younger sister Sarala, 11, will train, care for, and feed the bull calf the way they do all their steers and heifers (which at the moment total 14), in hopes he’ll make the fair’s weight requirement.
A Family Affair
Cattle raising is a huge part of the lives of the Ryherd girls, who attend Palmetto Charter School. It all started when the twins were two years old, and the family had just moved from Kansas back to Parrish, where their mother Jessica Ryherd was raised. The house they bought was three miles from the home Jessica grew up in — a large property with a house, barn and stalls, all built by Jessica’s father, David Bailey. Plus, a cow pasture, with cattle.
Excited about his first grandchildren, David bought each of the twins a pony to house in his barn. Of course, the toddlers were too young to take care of the ponies, so they were ultimately sold and replaced with rabbits. As they got older, the twins became more and more interested in the cows their grandpa owned, and the process by which they were born, bought, shown, and sold.
When they turned eight, they joined Manatee County’s 4H club, called Palmetto Pride. David bought them each a steer (a young male) and since then, they have been showing, buying, and selling steers and heifers, generally using the money they make from selling their animals to buy new ones, plus feed and any gear that needs to be replaced.
The twins have always been bright, sweet and big hearted but so introverted as children that they had trouble making eye contact, even with their grandfather. Once they joined 4H that changed, their mother said. The girls are reserved and serious, are high achievers in school (they can’t pass up extra credit assignments, their mom said, even though they have straight As), and are extremely competitive, especially with each other.
But they are comfortable talking to anyone, making presentations, speaking publicly, and doing community service. That’s all due to 4H and their passion: raising beef cattle to show and sell.
“We found the thing that their hearts just ached for and that they love,” Jessica said. Sarala followed in her older sisters’ footsteps, and this year, their little brother Oliver, 8, will join 4H. In fact, the sisters bought him his first steer with money they made at the fair in January.
Life Lessons Learned
It’s perhaps inaccurate to say it all started with the twins, because Jessica and her two sisters also raised cattle, in the same barn, in the same stalls, and in the same 10-acre pasture her daughters use today. In high school, Jessica and her sisters even started their own cattle company. Jessica’s girls have learned what they know about raising cattle from her, and from their grandfather.
And the list of what they’ve learned is long. It ranges from how to castrate a bull to the science behind how hay converts feed. It includes marketing and financial know-how.
They’ve learned responsibility, respect, and compassion for living things. They purchase vaccinations and deworming medicine for their animals and know how to recognize signs of illness. They keep meticulous records, especially detailed budgets so they’re clear on their income and expenses.
They pay for feed, hay, soap, combs, harnesses, a trailer, and show sticks. They pay for registration fees for shows, clinics, and hotels they stay in for the clinics. They work hard at tasks that can be physically demanding, and are not afraid to get their hands dirty, literally. They’re happiest in T- shirts, cut-offs, and cowboy boots.
On a recent Sunday, after mowing their neighbor’s lawn, the girls arrived at the barn, where they immediately tied up their calves with halters attached to the stalls — a type of training that teaches the calves to hold their heads high when being shown in a ring.
They cleaned manure from the stalls, gave their animals hay, fresh water, and feed, and weighed them using a special measuring tape. Later that day, they accompanied their grandfather to a market in Wauchula to sell a heifer and a cow. Once a week, they wash the cows with a hose and then blow them dry — a process that takes about an hour.
The week of the fair, the work ramps up, and the girls tend to their calves each morning before school and each night, to ensure that their animals look and act their best for the show. Those days, the girls are up at 5:30 a.m. and in bed by 11:30 p.m.
The girls spend from six to 12 hours a week caring for their cattle, and more during the fair week, Jessica said. “I’m always very impressed with their work ethic,” Jessica said of her girls.
Projects, not Pets
The other life lesson the Ryherd girls have learned from cattle raising is an emotional one. A steer is a male cow that’s bred and raised specifically for the quality and quantity of the meat — like steak and roasts — they provide for humans. The twin steers that the twins showed and sold at the fair in January were born on the property and bottle-fed by Jessica and the girls for the first three days of their lives.
The family, which has a special love for twins already, were thrilled that one of their cows had twins. The girls named the calves George and Fred Weasley.
“We cry every year,” Sarala said, explaining that the fair is bittersweet. While there’s a euphoria that comes from successfully completing a challenging, sometimes 18-month project, it is hard to say goodbye to an animal you’ve trained, fed, and cared for so long. The girls have learned how to raise an animal for food then let it go. They’ve also learned an appreciation of where food comes from.
“It’s a sad time,” agreed Alex. But knowing the calves had the best possible life they could have had while with the girls, makes them feel better, they said. “There’s a grieving process,” said Jessica, who from the beginning has made sure the girls understand when, how, and why they will always have to let the steers go. “But it’s good to be sad. You’ve raised this animal for this purpose. These are living things. What we’re doing has value.”
Also, it helps that the girls bring heifers back from the fair — the process of loading them up and taking them home provide a distraction on that difficult last day. At the fair, the girls usually break even financially, and if there is any profit, they save it for their future — college or their first cars, for example. They don’t raise cattle for the money.
They do it for the fun, said Alex, who wants to be either a rancher or an agriculture teacher in the future. Whatever she ends up doing for a living, it has to involve cows, she said. For Alex, the fun comes from getting to know the animals’ personalities, being outdoors, and being with family.
“This is special and different,” Alex said.