Up front, Hooter McCormick never fancied himself a world-class livestock judge—passable, above average even, but not top of the heap. That's one reason he'd turn down the occasional offer to evaluate stock at this junior show or that one. That's also why he'd never had any aspiration or intent to coach a livestock judging team, until now.
“It's either you or me,” Uncas Binglemeyer had told Hooter a week earlier.
Uncas, you may recall, was one of Hooter's own 4-H judging teammates, who had moved north of the Red River years ago. Uncas still had shirttail relatives in Rio Rojo County, though. In fact, Binkus Binglemeyer, looked and acted exactly like Uncas had at 9 years old, which is to say, red-haired, freckled, paper-thin, with a mind of his own and no misgivings about sharing his thoughts with anyone.
“Unless I miss my guess, Binky will be one of your top hands in reasons,” said Uncas, looking prouder than a Lab pup gnawing on the furniture.
“Wouldn't surprise me at all,” said Hooter. If Binky was anything like Uncas, Hooter knew he would have plenty of reasons for placing stock like he did, with more conviction than Carry Nation during happy hour. If he was anything like Uncas, Hooter also knew that Binky's placings would be absolutely wrong, and his reasons for placing them that way unconventional.
Fruits of Necessity
Understand, Uncas Binglemeyer's heart was in the right place. When he heard that Binkus was interested in livestock judging, and knowing that Rio Rojo County hadn't fielded a team for better than a decade, he decided either he or Hooter would be the perfect coach. Understanding the implications of the former, Hooter agreed to give it a go.
“Just look them over,” Hooter told his new judgers—ages 9 to 12—at the first practice. “You've got five minutes. Just look them over and think what bulls are used for. Imagine that you need to buy a new bull for your cows. Look at these four and decide in what order you'd buy them and why.”
Hooter had enlisted Charlie's help in putting together four bulls more different than Rebels and Yankees.
There was a sale-barn bull standing in the first hole—of indeterminate lineage and hollower than an old railroad tie after the termites, pencil-gutted, sway-backed, sickle-hocked, rough-shouldered, standing just a touch higher than a Wrangler patch, with horns pointing in opposite directions, patches of bare skin and an asthmatic wheeze. It was the easiest bottom since the next presidential election.
In the next spot was Peetie Womac's new Balancer bull, thick and level in all of the right spots, reeking of balance, health and prepotence. This was a five-figure herd sire worth every penny, and it showed before you ever looked at his pedigree or numbers. An easy top.
Next in line was a Hereford bull, what your eyes tell you is a solid, middle-of-the-road kind of bull. Just a touch too small, none too thick, but correct enough. An easy second, in Hooter's way of thinking.
The last bull in the line-up was one of those hold-over elephants from the 1980's—gigantic, deep-bodied and balanced enough from a side-view, other than being almost straight-shouldered, with feet way too small for the frame. Look at him from the back or front, though, and he was narrower than a gnat's closet, with the testicular development to match. All things considered, Hooter figured him an easy third in the class.
When five minutes was up, Hooter called the kids to the other side, one at a time, to give him their placings and reasons while still having a chance to see the bulls. He started with Ben Fitzsimons, whose dad managed a feedlot and ran some cows on the side.
“If I had to buy one today, I'd take the number four bull,” said Ben. “The reason being that there's no way I could afford the bull in the second spot, which is clearly the best bull in the whole class by a mile. That number four bull, though, he weighs the most, I can put some pounds on him, and with cutter prices what they are, I've got some cash to put toward that number two bull. That Hereford bull isn't bad. That bull you have in the first hole, I'd try to give him away; he ain't worth the gas to haul him back to the sale barn.”
Though the placings weren't right, per se, the logic was crystalline. With a little coaching in gamesmanship, Hooter figured Ben had the makings of a top junior judge.
Next came Lucy Franklin, a niece of Izzy's. “You just have to start with the Hereford bull, and the other three don't matter,” said Lucy flatly.
“Why is that?” wondered Hooter.
“Herefords are the only cattle Noah would allow on the ark,” said Lucy. “That's what my grandpa taught me. Everybody knows that.”
“All right,” said Hooter. “But if you had to buy one of the black bulls, which one would it be?”
After a lot of fidgeting, Lucy allowed, “Well, I'd take the second bull. He's the best one in the whole class, you know, but don't tell my Grandpa I said so.”
“I won't,” Hooter assured her with a smile and a wink. Two for two, and so it went. Push come shove, one by one, the rookies were finding the top and the bottom without problem. Probe further and they were sorting out the middle pair in good shape, too.
Then came Binkus Binglemeyer. As he approached, Hooter could also see Uncas coming up the fence line to listen in.
“Well, Binkus, how do you sort them?”
“It's easy,” said Binkus, and Hooter cringed. “You have to start with the number one bull, followed by four, followed by the Hereford bull, followed by the bull in the second spot.”
“How do you reckon that number one bull in first place, Binkus?”
“Well, how do you expect a bull to defend himself against coyotes without horns? He's obviously the only one with them. Besides which, take one look at him and you know he's been through a lot. He's a survivor. Plus, he's the smallest in class. Given input costs, he should produce calves that take less feed.”
“O.K. But if input costs concern you, why would you place number four in second place?”
“Imagine a flat banana.”
“On the one hand, he's tall alright, which is good for the rough country we have, but there's not much meat to him, like a flat banana. So, he shouldn't take as much feed. Not like that bull in the second spot. Did you see how thick he is?”
Hooter glanced over at Uncas who was beaming one those I-told-you-so smiles. “I did notice that number two is plenty thick. I was thinking that muscle would be a good thing in terms of yield grade in his calves. Why did you place him last?”
“Feeding costs aside, which I believe I've already explained adequately,” said Binkus with an accusing tone, “did you happen to notice how big his, ahem, well his scrotal, I mean to say…”
“Yes, I did notice the second place bull has the most scrotal development of any bull in the class,” helped Hooter.
“Well sir, surely you know that has been shown to be directly related to age of puberty?”
“If they breed earlier, they calve earlier. Can you imagine a bunch of 2-year-old heifers calving at the same time? Delay puberty, you delay breeding, you delay calving, and hopefully you spread it out, too.”
“Heifers will be sturdier at 3. Spread out the calving and you're better able to keep up with the work.”
Hooter knew exactly who had been coaching Binkus so there was no reason to continue the interrogation on the bull that everyone else had rightfully seen as the top bull in the class.
“All right, then, what about the Hereford bull. Why did you put him in third?”
“I hated to do it, Mr. Hooter. If that other bull wasn't so thick, I would have placed the red and white one last. I know his color is wrong.”
“You do realize that black absorbs the sunlight more than lighter colors.”
“I'm aware of that.”
“Well, in these parts, you want cattle to absorb as much sunlight as possible.”
Though unsurprised, Hooter was having a hard time following this last bit of odd logic. “Actually, I've known folks in these parts to prefer lighter colored cattle because of the heat.”
“That's where they're wrong. Mr. Hooter. The hotter they are, the more opportunity there is for subcutaneous aspiration. Besides which, the more Vitamin D they can store. Need I say more?”
Over his shoulder, Hooter heard Uncas: “Attaboy, Binky, attaboy!”