It hasn’t been that long since James Felt was on the other side of the coin in the show arena.
Fifteen years ago, the lifelong Wayne County resident was showing heifers and winning awards at county, state and national shows.
Friday, he was fulfilling duties as beef superintendent for the Wayne County Fair, helping the judge look over 4-H cow-calf entries and guiding them around the small show pen in the cow-calf barn on the northeast corner of the fair complex.
For the 33-year old cattleman, it’s all about giving back to the organization that gave him his start.
“I feel like, whatever I can do to give back to the next generation, I’ll do it,” he said. “I know what 4-H did for me when I got started. I was as clueless as anybody and didn’t know a thing, but I wanted to learn and I was around successful people who gave me the opportunity.”
It all started for Felt as an 8-year old kid living on the farm with his parents, Merlin and Delores. His dad bought a few bucket calves to show in 4-H, and the passion for showing cattle grew from that.
“The Roberts family got me going showing feeder calves, and then I started showing some market calves and eventually we bought some breeding heifers and turned it into a cow herd,” Felt said. “It started out with something like 10-15 head of cows for 4-H projects, and now it’s grown to over 200 head.”
Showing cattle is hard work, and Felt said a lot of time and effort goes into successfully showing a young calf.
“It’s a real time commitment and a lot of work,” he said. “It’s no different than anything else you want to be good at; you’ve got to practice it all year long and get the calf broken early on and make sure they’re being fed properly.”
Training and feeding the cow is part of the process. There’s also the grooming and washing and rinsing that need to be done on a daily basis.
“It takes a lot of time to tame them and calm them down and get them broke to lead, and it takes a lot of grooming to help make that hair grow and give that extra shine,” he said. “It’s pretty much like taking a cow and getting it ready to go to prom.”
And once you start the process, you have to keep going, he added.
“You have to be consistent with it and do it every day,” he said. “If you can spend three hard days on a calf and get them broke to tie really good, you can work on them and get them to the point where you’re eventually ready to show them.”
Felt had a lot of success showing cattle as a member of the Coon Creek Clovers Club, and also dabbled in showing sheep for a friend for a couple of years. The experience he gained in working his animals over the years provided a lot of life lessons – along with a ton of lasting friendships.
“I really enjoyed doing 4-H, and then we bought some breed-registered Simmentals from the Roberts family and started showing at the Simmental Junior Nationals, and I met some of my most lifelong friends doing that,” he said. “It’s the people you meet along the way and the lifelong experiences you get. I don’t know that you can put a price on that.”
His first trip to the Simmental Junior Nationals was in Hutchinson, Kan., and after having success with a grand champion heifer at the Nebraska State Fair, the trip to Kansas wasn’t on the family’s radar.
“We thought that was way over our heads, but we didn’t realize how good we had it with that grand champion heifer,” he said. “We went to Kansas and won our class, and we were pretty ecstatic about that. We didn’t make it out of division, but if you’re in the top three in a class there, you’re doing good.”
In his last year of 4-H, Felt had a heifer that eventually won a national show in Louisville. The heifer won her class at the state fair, and he went to work for Wayne and Barb Oehlrichs out of Norfolk – but only on the condition that he could bring the heifer along to show.
“I thought that if I could stay off the bottom of the class I’d be thrilled, and then she went out and won her class as they youngest one there,” he said. “I was tickled to death when she won her division, and then we went out for the championship and she won the whole show.”
From that experience, Felt Farms began breeding and selling more show calves to other 4-H kids, and their cow herd grew to where they now have their own production sale.
“We sell about 70-80 bred heifers, 20 show heifers and some show steers, and probably 40-50 bulls every year,” he said. “That’s my livelihood now.”
And so Felt hopes that the experienced he gained from 10 years of showing cattle in 4-H can serve as an inspiration to the next generation to do the work and become successful showmen in their own right.
“There are so many lifelong lessons to learn while being around livestock and it’s a lot of time and work and dedication,” he said. “There are some experiences you get here that you may be able to read about in a book or by going to college, but until you experience it yourself, it’s hard to understand.”
“I know not everybody is going to go to the level that I did,” he added. “But if I can help as much as I can and maybe some kid can reach that level and get the same life that I’ve had, then that’s what it’s all about.”