Lilly Williams has been showing pet horses and pygmy goats at the Geauga County Fair since she was in second grade, but she has yearned for a greater challenge and a shot at a payoff for her hard work. The idea of taking on a junior fair “meat project” intrigued her, so this year, she and 14-year-old brother, Zane, primed two Suffolk cross lambs for show and, ultimately, auction.
Sure, there are mixed emotions in parting with her prizewinning lamb, Siren, whose ultimate destination after the junior fair is the slaughterhouse. But at the formative age of 16, Lilly matter-of-factly states she is ethically shepherding the lamb’s obligation on the food chain.
“Of course you love them,” Lilly says. “People say to me, ‘How can you send them off to be sold?’ But these animals develop meat faster due to selective breeding, so it would be cruel to keep the lamb longer than necessary.”
“The animal is doing its job,” She says, “It’s not being wasted. Its role is to be consumed.”
She and Zane have spent the last five months preparing their lambs for the 192nd annual Geauga County Fair, Ohio’s oldest continuous county fair and one of the oldest existing agricultural fairs in the United States. The siblings are members of Geauga County 4-H—an arm of Ohio State University Extension—that encourages young adults to contribute to their communities in a variety of hands-on ways, including agriculture projects.
Between balancing schoolwork and working with her mom, Pam Chipps-Williams, at Silvercreek Veterinary Clinic in Novelty, Lilly dedicates a couple hours a day at her family’s five-acre property in Chesterland, grooming the lambs for the early September show. She learns how to properly lead a lamb without a halter. She and Zane administer baths and shave wool, and chase the lambs with a lawn mower for exercise.
The ratio of feed to exercise is a key part of the ritual, because of its impact on the lambs’ muscular development.
“You want to have the right mix of fat and muscle when they’re ready for the fair,” Lilly says. “Their meat needs to have some nice marbling, but not be too fatty.”
The lambs this year ended up too shapely for the judges’ preferences, but Lilly did notch a win in the showmanship’s novice class, which evaluates the animal based on behavior and appearance.
“When you show lambs, you really want to win reserve or grand champion of the market class, which judges the animals based on their body structure,” Lilly says. “The reserve and grand champions are the ones that buyers at auction spend the most money on.”
Zane’s docile pygmy goat, meanwhile, nabbed grand champion and best of show at the junior fair.
“I tell him, he won best goat show, but I made a bigger profit on the lamb,” Lilly says.
On the fifth and last day of the fair, Lilly leads the lambs toward the truck that will take them. Her feelings were not unlike the purposeful resolution she feels when she’s butchering the family chickens.
“It didn’t feel wrong. It felt right,” she recalls. “We did a good thing, raising animals in a free-range environment before they are meant to feed another family.”
She and Zane will be showing both pygmy goats and lambs again for the 2015 fair, though they’ve altered their approach to rearing the lambs. This year, they have instituted a more careful monitor of hay and grass intake. Meanwhile, the teen 4-H’ers are bolstering pelleted grain and oat consumption to bulk up muscle mass.
But raising these animals isn’t all about winning the grand champion. It’s not even about earning top dollar for the meat. Lilly and Zane are reaping the reward of raising livestock with integrity. The real value is their contribution toward an ethical pasture-to-table movement.