Winona-area kids care for animals through programs

Published 4:08 pm Saturday, October 8, 2016

ROLLINGSTONE — Fondu likes to chew your shoe and slobber all over it. Fifi likes to duck out of the halter and gallop away.

But Cora Gibbs, 13, has a knack for getting animals like Fondu and Fifi — twin 6-month-old Jersey calves — to behave and perform under pressure. Cora enrolled in 4-H when she was 8 and started working with livestock when she was even younger. This year at the Minnesota State Fair, she turned in her best showing yet, winning a grand championship for the way she raised and presented Red, a male pig.

“I’d say you’re nervous, because you know there’s going to be good animals there,” Cora said of the State Fair. She has the grand champion’s purple ribbon and plaque displayed in her bedroom at her family’s farm outside Rollingstone.

Email newsletter signup

“I was extremely happy,” she said.

An eighth-grader at a small rural middle school, Cora is not the only girl in her class raising and showing livestock. Her friends and their animals compete in different categories, she said, so their relationships when it comes to 4-H are more amiable than adversarial.

“It’s cool,” said Bridget, Cora’s mother. “You have a group of girls sitting around, talking about livestock.”

More than young people with farm animals, 4-H clubs around the country offer programs in robotics, baking, photography and more. The organization estimates 6 million youth in the U.S. are involved in one program or another. In 2015, Minnesota had roughly 67,000 youth involved.

The Gibbs family — including Cora’s two younger sisters — has its arms full caring for cows, pigs and horses.

In the spring, Cora selects the animals she will train and show. With cows in particular, there’s much to contemplate. There’s body length, height and depth of rib. There’s the look of the cow’s hooves and legs. There’s dairy character — the cow’s ability to produce milk.

Cora builds a rapport with her cows, gaining their trust and practicing show poses. She comes down to the pens a few times a day to feed, water and walk them.

“The worst part,” she said, “is cleaning up the poop.”

“Sometimes,” her mother noted, “you wash them, they poop, and they lay down in it.”

People who present cows and pigs are tasked with gussying up and teaching obedience to animals that aren’t crazy about it either.

“You just try to control them the best you can,” Cora said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

For your cow to get high scores from the judges, Cora said, you must work on the animal’s pose. A cow should have its front legs aligned and its back legs staggered, with the leg on the judges’ side positioned slightly behind the other.

She recently tried to demonstrate this, but couldn’t quite control a lurching Fondu.

It is frustrating when animals don’t cooperate, she said, because of the work that goes into the shows.

In preparation, Cora takes her cows and trims their hair. Blow dries it. Runs her fingers through it. Sculpts little mohawks across the tops of their backs — “to make them look more even,” she said.

Then she pulls out the hairspray.

“You just try to control them the best you can. Whatever happens, happens.” Cora Gibbs, 13, 4-H participant.