At this 124-year-old livestock show, kids steal the spotlight with their prize animals

Oct. 30, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

A young girl smiles and poses with a sheep.
San Antonio, Texas, native Allison Throckmorton, 8, shows off her sheep, Tornado, after competing at the American Royal. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

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Bre Engler, 9, peppers little kisses across the forehead of her cow, Kinsley, while she waits for her father to set up the stall’s bedding.

“Sometimes after we wash her and comb her and all that, I'll give her kisses all over,” she says.

A young girl smiles and poses with a black cow.
Bre Engler, 9, cuddles with her heifer, Kinsley. "I like coming to shows because I just get to see my friends and I get to introduce them to her and then she's all happy and excited." (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

Kinsley is just one of the many heifers in the stalling, the indoor area where the animals are kept before the show. Families set up tables and chairs while their cows’ relax in their stalls and they wait for the shows to start.

Engler, who has just finished washing her cow, is preparing to enter her in the showmanship competition, where the judges will be watching for how well she handles the animal when she leads it around the ring.

A line of people hold onto sheep in a show ring.
Competitors in sheep showmanship display their animals for the judge during the American Royal Livestock Show. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

“I feel pretty nervous and I have butterflies in my tummy, but as soon as I step in the ring, I feel like I'm home,” she says, “because when I’m in the ring with my cow, they just calm down and it’s my happy place.”

Over 4,000 head of cattle, sheep, hogs and goats arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, for the annual American Royal Livestock Show. The event, which is one of the largest in the nation, goes all the way back to 1899. Over 2,000 exhibitors, some as young as 7 years old, traveled from all over the United States to compete in competitions and show off their livestock.

A small boy in a cowboy hat holds onto the harness of a black cow.
Landon Witherow, 11, prepares to enter the ring with his market steer entry inside Hale Arena. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

Nathan Lauden, the director of education for the American Royal says that doing shows like this instills not only a sense of responsibility in the kids, but also an understanding of agriculture.

“Absolutely we want these young people to hopefully stay involved in the food and agriculture industry,” he says. “If they don't, hopefully they have an appreciation for what it is afterwards.”

Just a floor above the cattle, the sounds of shears and blow dryers fill the stalling where the sheep and goats are kept. Andre Carter, 10, of Perkins, Oklahoma, dries his lamb, Bdub, so that he can shear it before the competition. Like many other youth exhibitors, showing livestock is a generational tradition for him.

A young boy points a blow dry hose at his sheep.
Andre Carter, 10, blow dries his sheep prior to showing it off at the American Royal. "I'm looking forward to doing good with him, hopefully winning or placing at least, and just hoping he grows to be a good lamb," he says. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

“I got into this because my dad showed lambs, my grandpa showed lambs and then my sister showed lambs and then I start showing lambs,” he says.

Carter has done other shows before, but this is his first time at the American Royal.

“Sometimes before I go to my class, I watch other people who are more experienced with sometimes better lambs and how they place and how they set up and how quick they do it.”

Riley Stucker, 18, from Lee County, Iowa, has many years of experience showing hogs. He weighs his pig in the Governors Exposition Hall while other exhibitors mill about around him, guiding their pigs to and from their pens.

A teenage boy sits in a pen with a pig.
Riley Stucker, 18, shows off his Duroc pig who he just brought in from weighing at the American Royal. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

“It's more than just learning how to care for livestock,” he says. “One of the biggest things I've learned is dealing with your losses because the main thing we're doing here is trying to win a show, but you win way less shows than you'll ever lose.”

Going into his senior year of high school, this is one of his last shows, but he’s hoping to attend college for agriculture and continue working in the livestock show industry.

A teenage boy wearing a baseball cap speaks.
Riley Stucker talks about what it takes to raise and show a pig for the American Royal livestock show. "It's very a big blessing in my life to be able to show these pigs that my parents never got the opportunity to do," he says. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

“I sacrificed basically everything I had and I gave up all my sports and everything for this, so it's something that I really enjoy and hope to make something out of,” he says.

Many of the young people say that taking care of livestock takes a large amount of time and commitment, as they have to be exercised, groomed, watered and fed every day.

Catalina Cutshaw, 15, from Louisburg, Kansas, brought her lamb, Little Dale, to the show.

“Day to day wise, I work 'em every day,” she says, “I clipped him this morning and I washed him right before this and I brushed his legs.”

Girls hold onto gray sheep in a show ring.
Riley Stucker talks about what it takes to raise and show a pig for the American Royal livestock show. "It's very a big blessing in my life to be able to show these pigs that my parents never got the opportunity to do," he says. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

She waits in the holding ring of Hale Arena, where most of the animals are shown except for the hogs. The categories move quickly, with kids filing their sheep in and out of the ring. Bleats echo across the large arena over the sounds of the exhibitors chatting with their friends and family as they wait in the holding ring for their turn to show.

Before Cutshaw goes in, her grandmother presses a coin into her hand for good luck.

“I'm kind of nervous. My grandma just got here so I'm excited 'cause she drove all the way up here to watch me,” says Cutshaw.

A line of young girls hold onto goats as they march into a show ring.
Competitors enter Hale Arena at the American Royal to show their market goats. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

This is Allison Throckmorton’s first time at a large show. After her category, the 8-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, waits on the side of the ring to get her picture taken with her sixth-place ribbon and her lamb, Tornado.

“He didn't jump, he walked all the time, so I think that's good.”

A young girl with a purple bow in her hair smiles at a sheep.
San Antonio native Allison Throckmorton, 8, playfully interacts with her sheep, Tornado, after competing at the American Royal. "He likes to chew on my belt," she says. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

She says she loves doing livestock shows because she gets to bond with animals.

“I think it's fun having sheep because once you get to train him, he's not so crazy,” she says.

A close-up picture of a belt that reads "Grand champion goat"
Caroline Andrews, waits with Picasso outside the show ring at the American Royal. Her buckle refects her grand champion award with another goat at a Texas livestock show. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

Caroline Andrews, 18, another Texas native, just got out of the ring with her paint goat, Picasso. No stranger to showing livestock, her favorite memories are with her previous goat, M&M.

“He was really special to me because we bonded so well, and we worked so well as a pair. It just made it easy,” she says.

A girl in a purple shirt poses and smiles with a goat.
Caroline Andrews, 18, shows off her goat named Picasso after her round of competition at the American Royal. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

For some categories at livestock shows, the goal is to make sale, which means that the best livestock is sold to buyers. Andrews sold M&M at a show back in Texas.

“I always get sad. They say that you get over it after a while, but it is still upsetting,” she says, “but then you remember how hard you worked. It's a true dedication to your hard work.”

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.