By JOHN O'CONNELL
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho -- For more than two decades, Power County youths have benefited from a unique fair dress rehearsal, pitting their show pigs, sheep and calves against local competition a few months before the real event.
Since youths have to bring their livestock to the fairgrounds for a spring weigh-in anyway, the southeast Idaho county seizes the opportunity to host annual spring fairs, explained University of Idaho Extension educator Reed Findlay.
The spring fair for calves was hosted March 30. Findlay estimates it drew about 17 children, roughly two-thirds of the county fair's normal enrollment. The spring fair for pigs and sheep will be May 4, with weigh-ins from 9 a.m. to noon and the show starting at the fairgrounds at 1 p.m. Findlay predicts about 80 children will participate.
Trophies are awarded, but more importantly, participants get a trial run to overcome the butterflies, and judges dispense advice to help them improve for the Power County Fair, which will be Aug. 5-9 at the fairgrounds.
"The main purpose is so kids can at least get one show in before they go to the fair," Findlay said. "None of the other counties I know of have a spring fair. Power County is special in that respect."
Spring weigh-ins help determine winners at the county fair for average daily weight gain.
The spring fair awards prizes for classes of juniors, intermediates, seniors, FFA for high school students and beginners, open to any first-year participant regardless of age. Admission is free.
"We judge kids based on how well they show their animals. For some of the kids, this is how they learn to do it," Findlay said, adding the spring fair includes no competitions for evaluating muscle, quality and structure.
Participants are also drilled in animal judging and identifying cuts of meat. Spring fair judging winners are invited to participate in the county's livestock judging team at the Eastern Idaho State Fair in Blackfoot, Idaho.
The spring fair experience was especially useful to 13-year-old Abbi Cook this year, as she's showing a calf for the first time. For the past five years, the eighth-grader has shown pigs.
"You have to give your steer a lot more attention than a pig," Cook said.
Cook spends about an hour each day brushing, walking and cooling off her calf, a short-horned Black Angus named Jake.
The most dedicated 4-H youths also show their animals at so-called jackpots, bonus livestock competitions hosted throughout the state and region. Cook intends to attend a summer jackpot in Burley, Idaho, but she notes the spring fair offers her a chance to compete against the same peers she'll encounter in the county fair.
TJ Burry, 13, now makes certain to maintain good eye contact with judges and to keep his pig between himself and judges whenever he enters a show ring -- both tips he learned from judges during last year's spring fair. He'll show a pig in the May 4 spring fair.
"You get a feel for what it's like to be in the ring showing your pig," said Burry, who won grand champion for quality at the county fair last summer.