For Sumner siblings Alex and Alyssa McGee, raising prize-winning livestock is in their blood.
“I basically came out of the womb in a Future Farmers of America jacket,” Alyssa quipped.
With mother Gail Komoto a former agriculture teacher herself, her children have inherited her love and knack for raising livestock. The family is in the midst of celebrating the several trophies and ribbons it earned last month at the Washington State Spring Fair.
Alex’s lamb took home the 4-H Grand Champion award, and was sold to Les Schwab of Gig Harbor. Alex’s hog also won 4-H Grand Champion, and was also sold to Schwab. Alyssa’s hog won the Future Farmers of America Grand Champion, and was purchased by Olson Meats in Enumclaw.
So what’s the secret to raising prize-winning livestock? Both Alyssa and Alex agree that the secret is lots of hard work and keeping focused.
“Focus on yourself,” Alyssa said. “It’s always important to open up and go ask people who know what they’re doing, and I really encourage that. But you need to work on yourself and not so much what your competition is doing. You need to stay focused on what you’re doing and what you need to do to be successful. You can always whine and complain that someone else is winning, and that it’s not fair. A lot of people do that but it’s not going to change anything unless you change yourself first.”
And for Alex, taking his older sister’s advice is always helpful as well.
“She helps me out a lot,” he said. “She teaches me all of these different techniques and what not. It’s just more about the hard work and dedication. You can’t just go out here and expect to come out once a week and expect to win the entire show. It’s hard work and constant dedication and sticking with it, and working with your animal and getting it trained.”
According to the McGee siblings, most of their competitors buy a lamb when they are 3 to 4 months old, and raise them for another three or four months.
“They’ll pick them out when they’re about 60 pounds, and then they will feed them, take care of them, manage their weight and nutrition, and train them, exercise them, and make sure they go in at the ideal weight,” said Alyssa, a 16-year-old student at Sumner High School. “For market lambs, that’s between 125 and 140 pounds. It really takes a lot of work to make sure that they go in at that weight. They’ll show it, and then they will sell it. In between that is finding a buyer, so you have to work on your marketing and communication skills to go out and get that animal sold, and to get donations to fund your project so you can make money off of it.”
Raising pigs is very similar to raising lambs, the siblings said.
Once the McGee’s get their piglets, they are put in a pen with a free feeder of food, so at the beginning there isn’t as much of a need to worry about whether the hogs are eating enough. The duo lets the pigs out to exercise and bond with them, so they can have better control of the animal during the showing portion of the competition.
“You’ll get the pigs a lot earlier because they have to put on more weight,” Alyssa said. “For sheep, they will gain 60 to 70 pounds when they are in your possession, but with the pigs, they’re gaining 200 pounds because you have to get them up to 270 to 285 is the ideal weight. You get them when they’re smaller and raise them until they are bigger, so you have them for a longer period of time.”
Alyssa says she enjoys raising hogs more, and after eight years of raising lambs, she has the process down to a science.
“The hogs are a good break from the sheep. It’s not necessarily more fun, but it’s a change of pace and they are so different in their personalities,” she said.
The profit the McGee siblings make go to their college funds. Alyssa wants to become a large animal veterinarian, and is looking into programs at Washington State University, UC Davis and Texas A&M.
Alyssa has been in FFA for six years, but says she was practically born into the Sumner chapter. Her mom, Gail, was previously the Ag teacher at Sumner High.
“I took her on all of my trips and to the fair,” Gail said.
Alex’s experience is with 4-H. Their mom says it evens the playing field for the siblings.
“He doesn’t want to compete against sister,” Komoto said. “He usually wins 4-H and she wins FFA, so it keeps it even.”
All of the livestock shown at the Junior Livestock Show at the Spring Fair are terminal sales, where once the animal is sold, it is off to be slaughtered. Alyssa says after all these years, it’s still hard.
“My first year, I remembered I cried for a week when my lambs were sold,” she said. “I haven’t been really sensitive until this past year when I had two pigs. It’s harder with the pigs for me when they have so much more personality. I got attached to mine and there were some waterworks for a while, but it’s just part of it. You know from the start of it they’re going in to meat production, but it still (stinks).”
One thing is for certain when it comes to the McGees raising prize-winning livestock: Year after year, their hard work pays off.
“A lot of people don’t get the hard work thing,” Alyssa said. “A lot of people think you can just go out and buy the best sheep and that sometimes can be the case, but if you don’t know how to feed it right or show it for that matter, you’re not going to be successful as someone who has a decent lamb and can feed it right, exercise it right, and get it right on show day. You have to know what you’re doing to be successful.”
The mother of champions is extremely proud of her children for following in her footsteps in agriculture — and even more impressed with the ability to keep going when things get hard.
“It’s not always easy sailing, even when you’re winning,” she said. “Alex had a hardship this year that was unbelievable. It’s an awesome experience watching them grow from when they were little to getting into the industry.”