When Ellen Hinderlie showed her first steer at a livestock auction at age 8, she became part of a six-generation tradition of raising cattle on her family’s homestead.
“That kind of tradition is priceless I think. It’s really pretty unique, I don’t know if there’s a lot of sixth-generation anythings anymore,” she said.
The land near Napavine has been in her family since 1895, the homestead papers signed by Grover Cleveland. Her son, Matt, joined the tradition, showing cattle at the national level and winning prestigious awards.
But even now that he’s about to start at Washington State University, Hinderlie is still serving as vice-chair for the livestock auction committee for the Grays Harbor County Fair Youth Livestock Auction. Students raise their own cattle, sheep, goats, hogs or small animals and sell them to local buyers in order to fund useful projects or a college education.
Asked what keeps her coming back, her answer is quick: The kids. It’s about teaching them an appreciation for hard work, how to pick themselves up and learn from failure and how to run a business and handle marketing, skills they can use wherever they go in life.
“I think it’s really fun to just watch the kids grow up, from having their first animal to graduating high school, selling their last ones. That’s rewarding,” she said.
Home on the ranch
Hinderlie has been around cattle since she could walk, and chores included helping out with animals for as long as she can remember. But raising her first steer taught her something else.
“It’s a lot of work,” she recalled with a laugh. “One of the things I learned right away.”
It’s probably only non-ranch families who might be surprised at handling such a large animal so young.
“I was the third kid in the family to do that, by the time they got to me it was pretty much not as big a deal. I think it’s a little bit hard to watch them struggle sometimes with doing some physical tasks” like moving 50- to 60-pound hay bales.
She had a few tough moments when her son struggled with things like that, but “it was fun to see the tradition continue. I think that’s another thing that keeps each of us committee members, as adults, enthused: seeing the next generation come up,” Hinderlie said.
“It’s fun to watch the development process as they learn the responsibility, getting up early, getting the animals taken care of, getting ready for school, getting home from school or sports … (and) when you come home, there’s still a mouth to feed or two,” she said.
The rewards of the process can be surprising: Hinderlie still remembers the shock of hearing the bids soar to $5.25 per pound for a Champion steer she showed around 1980, roughly $15 per pound in today’s dollars, setting a Lewis County record that stood for more than 30 years.
The prices the kids get depend a lot on the support of the community. Many bidders “turn” the animals, or buy them but don’t take them. In many cases, the animal then goes to a business who provides a “floor price” for livestock, ensuring every student whose animal meets weight and quality requirements will get a minimum price for their work.
Bidders can turn the animals over to the business, paying only the difference in their bid and the floor price, usually provided by Stewart’s Meat Market.
Making the grade
Unlike some modern children’s activities, raising an animal for auction can, and sometimes does, end in failure. If you chose to look at it that way.
All animals allowed into the auction have to meet quality benchmarks based on actual meat industry standards, as well as requirements for the animal’s minimum and maximum weight.
Kids have a lot of people, including numerous volunteers with the auction committee, sharing helpful advice and guidance on how to meet those requirements, but it’s up to that student to make it happen. If they want to try it their way first, they can do that, Hinderlie said.
One thing they all learn sooner or later: “Shortcuts are not going to get you there,” she said. Quality feed and care shows in the animal, and students are rewarded for that hard work with better prices.
“They’re presented with a lot of challenges initially that they have to work around, and sometimes that’s done successfully and sometimes it’s not,” she explained. “If they didn’t make weight because you didn’t worm them like you should, you know for next time.”
“If you look at it from a learning perspective … if you adjust plans and programs and try again, then success is achieved the next time and they’ve learned that. They’ve also learned how to deal with a set back. Let’s face it, we’ve all dealt with that. That’s a life skill that’s invaluable.”
Science and nursing
Skills like that helped lead her to her career as a nursing professor at Centralia College.
Hinderlie took an unusual route to nursing, initially studying animal science embryology at WSU. Essentially, it uses cows as surrogate mothers for other cows, which helps improve the genetics of breeding stock much more quickly than just breeding one cow, yielding one calf per year.
That was going fine until new legislation required people in that field to be licensed veterinarians, an education process that didn’t interest Hinderlie at all. But her science coursework set her up nicely for a switch to nursing. She became a cardiac critical care nurse, then a teacher.
“Here’s an ag background, and ag classes really, that ended up leading to a non-ag career, yet it very much crossed over. It was easy to give injections to humans when I had been used to giving them to cattle,” she said with a laugh.
Although the Youth Livestock Auction lasts only one afternoon, the committee and its volunteers are hard at work all year long.
“Really the day after the sale we’re starting to think about the next year’s,” Hinderlie said.
That involves meeting with local businesses and potential buyers to keep them informed on what’s happening with the auction, helping out students with projects and reviewing and sometimes revising the rules and structure of the auction.
About four years ago, they added goats to the list of animals kids could raise, and last year they began allowing students to raise a large animal as well as a small one, like a turkey or rabbit.
That last change was designed to promote small animals, opening the door to kids who may not have access to the space and facilities needed to raise a larger animal.
“It doesn’t take a lot of room to raise a turkey or a pen of rabbits or something like that. We wanted to encourage those students, and their parents, too, who maybe didn’t think they had the right kind of of facilities,” Hinderlie said.
The lower prices the smaller animals bring are somewhat balanced by a triple auction; The first bidder can choose to give the student their bid money and allow another bidder, who can do the same. The third bidder is the end of the line, taking the animal home.
Volunteers are integral to every step of the process, with skills ranging from agricultural know-how to business acumen.
“Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of work from a lot of people,” she said.
Kids may not directly realize it, but they’re learning important lessons about the agricultural industry. People don’t necessarily know much about where their food comes from or what goes into getting it on their plates.
“That’s something that’s really important to me and the rest of the committee is to educate these kids, not only to do a great job raising their livestock for the sale, but understanding the process there,” Hinderlie said. “It changes your perspective.”
Students get into the process knowing they’ll learn about raising animals, hopefully earn some money toward college or other projects, and have fun.
People who only interact with animals as pets may not understand the special relationship FFA and livestock auction students have with their animals. They’re raised with loving care and attention, and with the understanding they have an important job to do someday.
“If you haven’t experienced it, it’s not even something you would correlate having that kind of fun with the experience of raising these animals,” Hinderlie said.
“It’s fun to watch the animal develop. … It’s even more fun to meet the other kids doing a similar project,” she added.
There aren’t many opportunities for youths from different areas of the county to interact and really get to know each other. Even though they’re still competing at the auction, it’s a different approach than when they face each other in sports.
“You would really probably not help your competitor gain an edge in, say, basketball, offering them shooting tips so they can score more points the next time you play them,” Hinderlie said. “But what I see with kids competing in the livestock auction is they’ll say, ‘Hey I have this, you should try it’ — more collaborative interaction. Even though that’s going to make the animal look better and make the competition steeper. We see the kids willing to work together so everyone succeeds.”
The auction will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds.
For information on volunteering with the Youth Livestock Auction or getting a student involved, contact Hinderlie at 360-388-0302, or committee secretary Donna Boyer at 360-482-5818.