Bleachers in the multipurpose building at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds were packed on Saturday with people looking to fill their freezers with local meat and support 4-H youth.
The livestock auction is the last piece in the year-long 4-H journey and the end of four non-stop days of competition at the Last Chance Stampede and Fair.
“You have all year getting ready for this,” 14-year-old Treven Maharg said.
Treven and his brothers Kyler and Dylan are third-generation 4-H competitors in the Helena area. Their mom, Marla, grew up raising 4-H livestock on the family’s Prickly Pear Simmental Ranch and she wanted her children to gain the same knowledge she did through 4-H.
“I just think the skills kids learns can be really valuable in adult life,” she said.
Each of the Maharg children showed a cow and a pig in this year’s fair. It all started back in October, when the kids started to eye which animal they wanted to raise over the coming year.
4-H rules dictate competitors have to have their animals picked out by Jan. 1, but the Maharg children have their animals picked out by late December to get an early start. They spend winter break from school halter breaking them -- a process that essentially entails being pulled around by an animal until it realizes the halter will always win, Kyler, 17, said.
Through the rest of the school year, 12-year-old Dylan and his two brothers take care of their animals before and after school.
All the work comes to a head at the fair, where they show their animals and then sell them in the auction on Saturday. Only to pick out new animals and start anew in October.
The county fair sees an increase in attendance almost every year, and 2015 was no exception, fairgrounds manager Keith Hatch said.
“The concert on Wednesday night was huge. It was the biggest attendance we’ve had,” he said.
Based on comments he’s heard, Hatch said Martina McBride may have also put on one of the best performances the fairgoers have ever seen.
The Thursday night rodeo was another record setter, basically selling out, Hatch said.
Friday night at the rodeo, however, was down. Over the past few years heavy attendance on Friday and Saturday has shifted to Thursday. Hatch attributed part of that to the Red Ants Pants Music Festival, which takes place over the same weekend. People often want to attend both, so they see the rodeo on Thursday and head to White Sulphur Springs for the festival on Friday, he said.
Food sales were also up this year for vendors as of early Saturday, and the carnival was on track for an average year.
Each year the fair tries to make small improvements, most of which are behind the scenes. This year did feature the return of the petting zoo and pony rides -- the first time those two attractions have been available in several years, Hatch said.
Between 40,000 and 45,000 people stream through the fair each summer, Hatch estimated. Which he said makes it the single largest event in Lewis and Clark County.
“It’s great to see everyone come out,” he said.
'It's a whole family deal'
Terry Gauthier, the owner of both Helena McDonald’s, said he’s been to every 4-H auction since he moved to Helena 11 years ago.
When Gauthier lived in Idaho before moving to Montana, he was heavily involved in 4-H. Once he learned about how much work went into raising the animals, he had to continue supporting it.
“It's a whole family deal. It’s a lot of hard work and the kids earn a lot of valuable skills out of it,” he said.
Gauthier said he typically buys a couple pigs, a steer and occasionally a lamb. Then he gives most of it away.
Local meat processors take the livestock from the fair, and prepare the meat as requested. Then when it’s ready for Gauthier he gifts it to employees, shares with friends or donates it to the food bank.
He also typically gives the animals up for rebid at the end of the auction, which just provides another opportunity for 4-H kids to make some money.
“Ninety nine percent of them (use it) for furthering their education past high school,” he said.
That’s exactly what the Maharg family does with the proceeds they get from the auction. Anything that isn’t reinvested into raising the next year’s livestock goes toward college.
Noelle Hamilton, a 17-year-old friend of the Maharg siblings, even named her steer Tuition.
Before the auction kicked off at 11 a.m. Saturday, Treven said he was a little nervous to enter the ring. His older brother Kyler was less concerned.
The animals can sense nervousness, so it’s important to stay calm, he said. Plus, Kyler said he cares more about how the animal performs during the other competitions and less about what price it sells for at the auction.
The market price for swine was 70-cents a pound, but the animals at auction were going for around $4 a pound.
Kyler sold his for $4.25, Treven sold his for $4.50 and Dylan’s hog went for $5.25 a pound.