Tess Lillibridge stands out among the hundreds of young women who represent a specific livestock group because of one specific distinction: She is the reason her family became involved in raising the breed she represents.
The judges who named Tess the 2017 North American Junior Red Angus Event (NAJRAE) Princess in late June in Stillwater, Okla., chose her because of her years of experience in raising Red Angus cattle, even though she is only 13. They chose her because of her knowledge of that breed; the interview included a question and answer session. And they chose her because of her presentation, which included an essay as well as a Shutterfly book that told her Red Angus story in pictures.
Tess recently sat down at the family farm with her parents, Lance and Heidi, and younger brother Ty, to talk about how she became the NJRAE Princess, and what she hopes and plans to do with cattle in the future.
Her story begins in 2011, when Tess, then age 7, nursed a calf which had been rejected by its mother.
“This all started with one two-day-old unregistered Red Angus heifer calf in 2011,” Tess told the judges. “We named her Annabelle. We bottle-fed and broke her to lead. Now she is raising her fourth healthy calf.”
Annabelle is now the matriarch of a herd that has produced dozens of calves, both heifers who become part of the herd and steers who are sold for meat.
Working with her father, also helps to breed her cows through artificial insemination (AI).
Tess’s essay summarized her involvement in AI:
“I bought a flush from 3 Aces Ranch at the benefit auction. I received semen for the flush and a revers sort IVF for all females, at no extra cost. In February I took an artificial insemination class at Accelerated Genetics. I was willing to do it, but my dad was better at it. He does most of the actual process, but I’m normally there to prepare the semen, and will AI a cow if he needs help.”
Already engaged in full-time crop row farming, Lance and Heidi did not plan, six years ago, on adding a cattle breeding operation and spending many weeks and weekends each year traveling to shows and other Red Angus events.
The couple had bought some horses, thinking the children may like to ride them some day. They even built a horse barn.
Now, however, that “horse barn” serves as a cattle barn, and the equines are mostly just four-legged witnesses to the growing herd of cattle.
Tess loves the cattle in the way many people love their pets. She knows each heifer by name, and can tell you when it was born. Her parents have taken several photos of Tess working with the cattle, and a few very special photos of her caring for one that was ill.
One of Heidi’s favorite photo ops with Tess and a Red Angus took place last winter, when she photographed her daughter, wearing winter coveralls, laying near a steer on a snow-covered pile of straw.
“Lyle had a tummy ache,” Heidi wrote under the photo.
Tess loves each member of her herd. She often gives them names corresponding to their date of birth (Val was born on Feb. 14). Her scrapbooks are full of photos of Tess interacting with the animals several times heavier than her as though they were puppies.
And yet, Tess’s words to the judges reflect her love for the cattle, while still acknowledging their true, non-pet purpose: “The Red Angus breed is just so docile and pretty, and they make a dang good hamburger,” she wrote.
Tess recalls how Annabelle, in her earliest days, seemed to think she was just another pet, like the dog. She laughs as she remembers how Annabelle reacted to seeing adult cattle, and how frightened the calf was, even though they mooed like she does.
Learning the business
One of Annabelle’s first steers became a 4-H project for Tess. Her parents sat down with her at the beginning and discussed the project’s budget. Lance described how he went over the costs Tess could expect for feed and veterinary care, and told her that after selling the steer at the fair’s auction, Tess would have to pay those costs, but could keep the profits for her college fund.
It was tough on Tess – as it is for many fair participants who enter steers and must leave them at the end of the Fair – but after the tearful good-bye, she and Lance focused on money.
After reviewing the costs of the project, and the profits, and then looked at her father and said one short sentence that helped define how the family would spend the next several years.
“Dad,” she said. “We are going to need more cattle.”
Along the way, Tess has earned the respect of other Red Angus cattlemen.
“We have had the privilege to watch Tess learn and grow as a young breeder,” wrote Kurt Rich, of Rich’s Red Angus, a Vinton area Red Angus breeder. “We have seen firsthand the dedication and passion Tess has for the Red Angus Breed.”
Rich told the judges how Tess has shown one cow, named Daisy, in 22 shows, including a stock show in Colorado, and how she won the Champion Cow/Calf honor in two other shows, using a heifer she had chosen as well as a calf she halter-broke.
“Tess has shown a strong interest in breed improvement,” wrote Rich. “She understands the benefits of sire selection and how to utilize this technique to develop her herd.
One of Tess’s parent’s favorite anecdotes is a conversation she had with Rich. After hearing Rich tell her what he thought was, Tess thought for a moment and then said, “Well, that is one option.”
Another favorite family story: At age 10, Tess bid at her first Red Angus auction.
Lance recalled how the auctioneer worked with her, helping to explain the process. Heidi recalled how that a woman behind them, realizing that her husband was bidding against Tess, nudged him to get him to stop bidding.
“She elbowed him hard,” Heidi recalls.
In addition to those AI workshops that Tess mentioned in her essay, she and her family have attended a variety of shows, events and training sessions, and Tess has read a variety of books and other information on raising Red Angus.
“I drive my friends crazy because I constantly talk about beef facts or my cows at home,” says Tess of her local friends. She also told the judges she tries to make new friends among the youth of the Red Angus community at every show she attends.
While Tess is involved in a variety of activities, she has found that she has had to give up some of them because of the time commitment her cattle operation requires.
“I also participated in dance for 10 years,” Tess wrote in that essay. “I enjoyed it, but eventually I got tired of it, and I missed a couple of shows because of recitals. In the end, I thought cows were more important.”
Tess has already begun representing the NAJRAE at local events, starting with riding in the July 4 parade in Independence. She wears a crown and a leather sash in her official capacity. On the back of the leather sash are the names of the former NAJRAE Princesses, one of whom was recently chosen the NAJRAE Queen. Tess plans, when she is old enough, to enter the NAJRAE Queen contest.
The family returned from a Red Angus event in Omaha in time to get ready for the 2017 Benton County Fair, where Tess and Ty will each show cattle. Then the following week, Tess will attend College for Kids at Coe College. She has also been involved in softball, as well as the Benton County and Iowa Cattlemen’s In 4-H, she has been involved in several projects and programs with the North Eden Willing workers. And at her church, she has been involved in the nursery and running the music slides, and is learning how to run the sound system. She also helps her parents with a variety of farm chores, and can operate most of the machinery there.
When asked how many hours a day she spends with her cattle, Tess pauses to think.
Her mother estimates Tess’s daily time commitment at around two to three hours.
But, the Red Angus Princess does notice the clock, because to her, Red Angus is as much fun as it is work – more fun, on most days, in fact. Although she will not graduate until 2022, Tess plans to attend ISU and major in some sort of animal science, with the goal of continuing her work as a Red Angus breeder.
The North American Junior Red Angus Event provides education activities for Red Angus youth breeders. The NAJRAE offers programs giving youth the opportunity to learn and practice business skills in the beef industry, and engage in leadership positions. The program emphasizes and recognizes those youth who show initiative and interest in owning and raising Red Angus beef cattle. The annual event serves as a forum for junior Red Angus youth and their families, breeders, and other beef enthusiasts to come together to compete, and to exchange ideas, knowledge, and technology. See more at the NARJAE web site HERE.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization web site has created a simplified description of AI, to introduce the practice to those unfamiliar with it. See that manual HERE.