Derek Miller hasn’t named a cow in years. Two days before the beef auction at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, Miller dragged his latest entry, a black Maine steer, out from the barn stall.
The cow is one in a line of more than 15 animals the Jimtown graduate has raised during his 10 years of 4-H, and after a while, it becomes routine.
“I named them all when I was younger, but I couldn’t tell you a single one now,” Miller said. “It’s never been too hard to see them sold because I have always known where they’re going to end up.”
If he does have to call the cow, he’ll say “deuces” for a number two that came on the animal’s ear tag when Miller purchased it last October. But the animal isn’t like a pet.
“You do get to like them because every calf has its own personality,” Miller said. “Some are harder to sell than others, but when you get the fair check in the fall, that helps.”
That check in the mail has been coming since Miller was nine. His parents, Darin and Michelle, own a farm in Elkhart, and Miller, 19, grew up in 4-H, helping with the family’s Limousin cattle and horses.
“He is the epitome of a 4-Her,” said Eric Stutzman, assistant leader of the Beef Club. “Derek always jumps in. He will help out anyone who asks at any time. He’s been a great leader.”
For Miller, the best part of 4-H was “being around friends and family, and helping people getting cattle ready for show day.”
Miller would soon start readying the steer for his last 4-H show, an extensive list that includes a bath, pulling the hair up on the legs with an adhesive (to make them look attractive), and giving the cow as much food and drink as possible for what Miller calls a “winning fill.”
Buyers are often found by word of mouth, as 4-Hers talk to people before the auction to spark interest. The average thousand-pound steer sells for about $2 per pound, earning the 4-Her roughly $2,000. It’s important to have a great calf, Miller said, but a way with people is important, too.
“If you work hard to get as many buyers as you can, you’ll do well,” he said. Miller has a buyer group this year, and the money he earns will go toward college.
Then the cow is off to the butcher block. Processing houses come to get purchased cattle mere hours after the show “for their last trip.” Buyers often just receive the meat, not the animal, after auction.
Yet a prize cow is not Miller’s goal. He had a champion steer one year, but can’t remember when.
“To me, it’s never about the winning,” Miller said. “The bigger thing is coming out and having a great time and helping everyone else have fun, too.”
Miller plans to major in diesel technology at University of Northwestern Ohio this fall, but he knows owning and raising cattle is in his future.
“I like watching them in the field,” Miller said. “I’ve grown up raising cows and don’t think I’ll ever really stop.”