As each of the four showmanship finalists set their calves’ feet with accuracy and swiftness, keeping their animal’s profile displayed while simultaneously weaponizing their show stick to methodically scratch the belly of their calf, the judge shared what each student did well and where he might like to see some improvements. The class competition focuses solely on the physiological makeup of the animal, however, showmanship is a display of students’ knowledge and their ability to expertly exhibit the animal. Winning any grade of showmanship is highly sought-after, but senior showmanship holds a special place, as it is the last time these students will ever have the opportunity to compete as a junior livestock exhibitor.
With over 50 students battling it out in Senior Beef Cattle Showmanship at the Georgia Junior National Livestock Show held in February, Habersham County student Grace McClain was selected as the overall champion.
The win was announced to much applause — and tears on her end — as the 17-year-old shook the judge’s hand and led her calf out of the ring. Like many others, the past 12 months have been challenging for McClain, with COVID-19 crushing many of the show plans and ambitions for her senior year of high school. One dream it didn’t crush was the chance to attend the North American International Livestock Exposition, famously held in Louisville, Kentucky, each year. McClain exhibited four head of cattle on the notorious green shavings, including one of her family’s own bulls weighing in at more than a ton.
Although McClain began her livestock show journey as a fourth grader exhibiting swine through 4-H, she says it was her sixth-grade agriculture teacher who first exposed her to the world of showing cattle. The McClain family had no livestock at the time, but by the end of her sixth-grade year, they made the decision to go all in. Seven years later, the McLains own 140 head of registered Simmental cattle, which are exhibited all over the Southeast.
“Sincerely, it’s all about learning,” says McClain. “We didn’t know what the heck we were doing when we first started. We would show up to shows without a chute. Now we have a whole cattle trailer with equipment on it.”
To excel in showmanship, McClain says she watches the winners. “You see the kids he’s pulling – the kids that are winning – and then that’s how I change to win.” The method seems to have worked well for her as she has won seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade state showmanship as well as being named this year’s senior champion. “After we won showmanship, I told my dad, ‘We can go home now,’ ” says McClain. “This is how I wanted to end my senior year to show that my hard work paid off.”
Her hard work includes being up at 6 a.m. each morning to bring the calves in from the pasture and feed them. After they’re tied under the fans, she’s off to school until lunch, where she is mainly enrolled in college courses. McClain works the calves for three to four hours each day, washing or rinsing their coats, practicing showmanship skills, and walking them for exercise.
While the cattle remain tied under the fans in the afternoons, McClain helps her mom with the family’s juice processing business, sold under the name Hazel Creek Cider. Then it’s back at night to feed the calves and turn them out to pasture.
Showing cattle is certainly McClain’s passion, however, it’s far from her only area of expertise. She was a National FFA Proficiency winner in the Agricultural Processing category, as well as a top four finalist for the Food Science and Technology Career Development Event. Additionally, she competes in the Employment Skills CDE and is also a three-time state finalist in Prepared Public Speaking, both of which are events within the FFA.
What makes it all just a little sweeter is the fact that for McClain, it’s not just about her. She also pours into those around her on a regular basis and takes time to mentor beginning showmen.
“A few days before coming to the state show, I had 10 folks at the house working on showmanship,” she says. “If I can give others the knowledge that I have, then what else is there? That’s all. I don’t have to show at all. I can just teach these kids.”
McClain has aspirations to teach elementary agriculture, but she is also strongly considering a path as a large animal vet or cattle embryologist. With plans to major in animal science and agricultural education, she is still waiting to hear if she got into her dream school: the University of Georgia.
Katie Murray is a lifelong promoter of agriculture and lover of good stories. She enjoys communicating the story of agriculture and of the people behind our industry.