Fifty-five-pound Nicole Beck of Gold Hill washes her black Angus steer, 1,300-pound Sparky, at the Jackson County Fair Thursday.

Big steer for a little lady

The tale of the tape on Nicole Beck and her black Angus, Sparky, shows a major advantage in favor of the steer.

But even on the short end of a 1,300-pound weight disparity, 11-year-old Nicole more than holds her own when it comes to managing Sparky and his massive physique.

When he acts up, "we hit him on the nose," Nicole said.

Her mother, Christine Beck, added that Nicole was able to manage the animal without much difficulty from the beginning.

"He's just a big puppy dog," Beck said.

Nevertheless, it took Nicole every bit of her 55-pound frame to maneuver the animal into place using its halter as she presented it to a panel of judges during the market competition Thursday morning at the Jackson County Fair. In her weight class, Nicole came in third.

Hers is one of about 170 cattle, between the 4-H and FFA divisions, that will be auctioned off starting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the fairgrounds.

Nicole, a first-year junior in 4-H, got the steer from her grandma, Jean Beck, in the middle of December. Over the last seven months she's spent several hours a day halter-breaking, washing, walking and even taking naps with Sparky in preparation for the fair.

"She lays on him like a couch," Christine Beck said.

It's pretty comfortable while he's asleep, according to Nicole, but things get a little dicey when nap time is over.

"I fall down when he wakes up," she said.

Rick and Christine Beck of Gold Hill adopted Nicole from the Jackson County foster care system about a year and a half ago. Raising the animal has helped Nicole become a member of the family, Rick Beck said.

Her sisters, Sydney, 9, and Sammie, 11, have raised animals for the past couple of years.

"The best thing, to me, is she looks like she's having fun out there," Christine Beck said.

Another 11-year-old, Joe Pickett of Eagle Point, can empathize with the work Nicole has had to put in.

Joe is in his second year, but managing his black Angus Blackbird can still be a challenge.

"Mom, help," Joe called out to his mother, Kay Pickett, as he tried to position the steer for a photo following his turn in the arena.

Despite his best efforts to make the work look easy, a grimace that crept across Joe's face suggested a struggle.

"All he likes to do in the morning is throw his weight around," Pickett said of Blackbird's tendency to be an annoyance.

4-H director Anne Manlove watched near the end of the arena, while Nicole, Joe and many other kids presented their steers to the judges.

"These kids are fearless," she said.

One of the most impressive things about the kids who show steers, said Manlove, is the time commitment it requires. Animals such as pigs and goats are with their owners for about three months. Some kids get their steers and dairy cows as far back as October.

Phoenix High School junior Hilary Risner is making the commitment for the eighth time. She has participated in competitions since she was 8 and still remembers her first cow vividly.

"She was really tame," the 16-year-old said. "We named her Madeline because she was bright red."

She remembers experiencing some of the same challenges this year's batch of new cattle raisers is going through.

"At first I couldn't halter-break her," Hilary said. "My mom had to do it."

A year ago, Hilary's steer was sold fifth at the auction. The high finish came with a $6,500 paycheck.

While the money was welcome, it isn't what brings Hilary back each year.

"I enjoy it," she said. "I'm into showing cattle and lambs. Hopefully, I can start a program breeding club cows."

On average, steers cost about $1,000 each, and require an estimated $1,500 investment to feed them and get them ready for competition. Rick Beck said $3.50 per pound is an average selling price at auction.

Prior to bringing their animals to the fair, the kids take buyer's letters to businesses around the valley asking them to participate in the auction. Nicole spent three weeks handwriting and delivering 32 letters.

She took them to Sherm's Thunderbird, Les Schwab and her dentist, among other businesses. Her earnings will go toward college, with a small portion headed to Nicole's pocket.

Her parents told her she could buy one thing and Nicole has her sights set on an iPod.

Nicole said she didn't plan on being involved with animals her whole life, but remains open to the possibility.

"I don't really know," she said. "Oh wait. I was thinking about becoming an archaeologist."

Most of the kids are aware of the fate that awaits their animals after the auction. Christine Beck said it was important to let Nicole know what was going to happen from the very beginning.

Even with the warning, Nicole's parents know that it will be difficult for her when Sparky is taken away.

Added Christine Beck, "Sunday won't be pretty."

Reach intern Bob Albrecht at 776-8791 or e-mail

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