Learning the Ropes
Spotlight on the Connors State College Beef Show Team
By Courtney Wesner
The first thing most college students do at the beginning of a new semester is head over to the bookstore and buy their textbooks. Most of us know books as a primary tool to gain knowledge; but for the average college student, a new hardback means a clean slate, new classes, and serves as hope for straight A’s.
Connors State College students enrolled in the show and sale cattle preparation classes will be one textbook short each semester; but that doesn’t mean they are left out to dry. These students tie hard to a corner post set in hands-on experience and verbal instruction from talented instructors instead of the more traditional paper method of learning. For these young cowboys and cowgirls it is the active experience of learning past the pages of a book and the promise of acquiring a valuable skill to be put to use in the cattle industry for a lifetime that attracts them to the course. Not to mention that they are all a few dollars richer when they leave the bookstore.
The edge of the Ozark Plateau in Warner, Oklahoma, where steep valley walls and narrow floors turn to wide open pasture ground, is the perfect setting for cattle production, and it’s the site of the main campus of Connors State College. CSC has a 300/acre on- campus farm and 1,350/acre ranch that is just six miles from campus. The college is home to about 2,500 students, who participate in numerous extracurricular activities such as athletics, rodeo teams, academic clubs, and one activity that hits close to home for SimGenetics and show cattle enthusiasts alike, the CSC Beef Show Team.
“Responsibly developing the next generation of cattle enthusiasts is a process, much like halter-breaking a weaned calf. Little, slow steps eventually become big, sure strides,” commented Blake Nelson, coach of the CSC Beef Show Team and current ASA Board Member. The Beef Show Team didn’t waste much time dragging at the end of a rope. In just its second year of existence it is taking huge strides, not only participating in the American Simmental Association’s (ASA’s) Progress Through Performance (PTP) sanctioned shows and other elite national shows, but also collecting banners at them.
“When I arrived at Conners, I saw a void in supplementary educational opportunities for livestock kids that didn’t want to judge. I got calls from friends and former classmates that needed help on the national show circuit road; I knew if we had more prepared students, we could not only supplement their education, but provide them with opportunities for employment. With the support of the administration, fellow coach Dale Pitchford, and numerous generous Simmental breeders, we have filled that void and created something unique and great at Connors in our Beef Show Team,” said Nelson.
Twenty-eight students ranging in experience from novice to advanced skill levels comprise the team. Blake Nelson, Dale Pitchford, and guest speakers instruct the crew daily. “Consistency is something that is not only important in cattle operations, but something that is important in all successful businesses and corporations alike. We strive to instill this importance and idea in our kids. For that reason we really go about this by starting at the ground level and building up when teaching these students, regardless of prior experience,” commented Nelson. Students are taught things as simple as measuring feed and daily care to more complicated skills like halter breaking and clipping and fitting.
Tests, quizzes, and books may not hold their traditional place in this course of feed scoops, halters, and clippers, but make no mistake that the art of responsibly preparing cattle for show and sale is rooted in verbal education; as is this course. “They receive lessons taught by local veterinarians on health, VitaFerm gives a presentation on nutrition, they get to watch a clipping and fitting demonstration, and the students have even heard lectures on halter breaking and handling tips from world-renowned individuals featured on RFD TV. The show ring is the final step, or test, but that is most definitely not where all of the learning takes place,” said Nelson.
Students earn their stripes to hit the show road throughout the semester starting with daily chores. The class is divided into two groups. One group is fully responsible for the morning chores and grooming starting at 6 a.m., the second group is responsible for the evening chores at 6 p.m. The next week, the morning and evening crews swap places. Each student is responsible for weekend chores once a month. As if daily care of the show cattle before and after classes wasn’t enough work, the students have now started a side business, helping local producers halter break and fit their weaned calves for sale in the on-campus facility. “These kids are hungry. No amount of work seems too much; no obstacle too big. They are truly excited to be a part of the beef industry,” said Nelson.
It is the performance and responsibility exhibited behind the scenes that gain students a seat in the truck when the trailer pulls out of Warner and off to the national show circuit. The CSC Beef Show Team attends the Oklahoma State Fair, Tulsa State Fair, American Royal, North American International Livestock Exposition, Fort Worth Stock Show, Dixie National Livestock Show, and Houston Livestock Show. The group hits three of the four major ASA PTP sanctioned shows along their journey.
“It’s really neat for me to watch these kids work, learn, and grow together. The best part of it all for me is when I get the chance to just step back quietly and watch them take ownership in the cattle and this program. This is the true success in it all for me,” commented Nelson. Success has also come in the color purple to the group. Just this year Connors State College exhibited the Champion and Reserve Champion Santa Gertrudis at Houston, Champion Percentage Simmental Bull at Dixie, Reserve Champion Percentage Bull at the American Royal, won Santa Gertrudis Herdsman honors at both Forth Worth and Dixie, and were named the Premier Santa Gertrudis Breeder award at the North American.
Past show cattle, these students have also had the opportunity to put their skills to work on production-oriented cattle and ranch-ready bulls. They clip and torch 200 bulls each year for the CSC Bull Test Sale. They also work at numerous elite purebred production sales in the area, including 74-51 Ranch, Griswold Cattle Company, Kiamichi Link Angus Ranch, and Langford Herefords. This opportunity has allowed students not only to tour but also to work in numerous facilities and see elite purebred and percentage cattle at work. CSC owns and manages a mature cow herd of 175 head. The herd consists of 70 head of Simmental/SimAngus, 60 head of Santa Gertrudis, 25 head of Angus, and the remainder are crossbred cows used in an extensive embryo transfer program.
A new larger barn will soon replace the small block barn with ten acres on campus where the program was started and the show cattle are currently housed. The students will graduate, and 80% of them will head off to a four-year university. However, the lessons learned, the memories made, and the generosity shown by Simmental breeders will not be forgotten any time soon. “Doug Parke, Monte Nail, Circle M Farms, Hudson Pines Farm, Walter Cattle Company, J.W. Brune, and a supportive administration have made all of this possible. The generosity of people sometimes goes unnoticed; but these kids and our community here recognize it every day,” said Nelson.
Katie Bullard, a sophomore member of the Beef Show Team, recapped it best; “I can’t imagine not working or playing around with cattle every day. In high school, I didn’t have the money to travel with my cattle. The furthest I had ever traveled was to a state show in Texarkana.I was always told that college would be the best time of my life and it would be a place where I would meet my best friends. This has been true for me. I have made amazing friends and created life-long bonds with people on my team and in the cattle industry. My years here have produced some of my greatest memories. From doing the boring things like getting up to feed at 5:30 every morning, to experiencing the most exciting things like winning a national title. Every memory I have made with my team will stay with me for a lifetime.”