With Bishop’s livestock show and auction slated for July 10-13, Bishop High School’s Future Farmers of America are going into high gear with a preview show, providing members with a chance to perfect showmanship techniques and giving prospective buyers a first glance at home-grown, well-fed, well-groomed pigs, lambs and calves.
The preview will start at 10 a.m. at the school farm on Sunland, but the real work for the students started two years ago for the calf projects or earlier this year for the pigs and lambs.
“We have a unique operation here,” instructor Joe Buffington said of both the 80-acre ranch and the level of involvement from the 120 FFA students. “Every student with livestock at the show has worked very hard. Our students are very, very dedicated. Everyone is involved with the animals and the green house.”
The students are responsible for running the ranch and for many it’s not a new experience. No one can live in the Eastern Sierra without being touched in some way by the ranching operations in the area. Many of Buffington’s students have deep roots in agriculture and intend to continue the tradition of family farming.
“These students are educated,” said Buffington. “They’ve learned skills they’ll use throughout their lives, whether they’re farmers or ranchers. We’re building character.”
The ranch is run very much like any other ranching operation, with pastures to allow for grazing and facilities to accommodate the spring surge of animals born on the ranch. During the school year, the students head to the ranch to do chores before class. Activity ramps up in the spring and early summer with the final push to bring the animals up to current market standards.
Working ranches may not have wash racks or scales where the animals are weighed daily, but as the auction nears and temperatures rise, the racks are put to constant use.
The goal for pig owners is to bring their animals to auction at the best weight, around 260 pounds. That effort is a balancing act, walking the critters to build muscle and keeping them cool enough with regular baths to maintain a healthy appetite.
This year’s standard for pigs, according to Allison Hooker, is a big pig. “This year they want pot-bellied pigs,” said Hooker. “They’re not looking for a lean pig. Last year, they were looking for tight skin, they didn’t want to see a lot of giggle.”
Buffington agreed. “Buyers will be looking for a medium- framed, but fleshier, heavier pig than we’ve had in the past. That’s what consumers are looking for, a heavy, healthy animal that’s going to taste really good, better than anything you’d buy at the store.”
Part of the uniqueness of the school farm is the breeding program. Most of the animals are born and bred Owens Valleyites. Hooker’s pig is the offspring of her project last year. The same regime to maintain the health and fitness of the animals runs throughout the year with the breeding stock.
Students will be perfecting their showmanship skills this Saturday at the preview and those skills are more than just show. A cooperative pig that listens to its handlers is a good indication that the students have been working consistently with the pig and providing the right balance of exercise.
While pigs are smart and relatively easy to work with in the ring, lambs are valued for their chops not their intelligence. The lamb-raisers walk their animals with halters and lead ropes for exercise, but remove the halters at the auction where the lambs are expected to walk with their handlers.
“Buyers are looking for the right shape,” said Cassidy Brennan. “They want a flat back, a flat front and rear, basically a muscular box with legs.” The ideal weight for the lambs is from 120 to 130 lbs. and bringing the animal up to or maintaining that weight presents challenges similar to those faced by pig owners. The heat can dehydrate the lambs making it harder to put on weight.
“People are more sensitive about where their food comes from,” said Buffington. “That’s why this program is so important.” In recent years, value has been put on home-grown, organic animals. “That’s what we’re raising,” he said. “(Buyers) are getting product that’s been born, raised and fed right here in the valley. You can’t get any fresher than that. If anybody wants to come see, we can walk them through the process. They can see the steps taken, the care taken.”