KEARNEYSVILLE – After decades of showing off his cattle during the Jefferson County Fair, Don Mickey is stepping back from what has become his family’s summer ritual.
“Forty-five years makes it a good number,” explains the energetic 83-year-old. “I’m not bragging about that. I’m just simply saying I think it’s time for me to let it go.”
Mickey, an emeritus director of the county fair board of directors, will be showing polled Herefords for the 45th consecutive year when the fair begins Sunday.
A retired Jefferson County teacher and administrator, Mickey got involved in showing beef cattle by happenstance. His brother, who married into a dairy farm family, gave him a Holstein calf as a Christmas present. That calf led to a 4-H project by his son.
Then a neighbor gave his son a white-faced Hereford steer to show at the annual fair. One thing led to another on Mickey’s single-acre property outside Charles Town.
“Well, here we are 40 some years later,” he said. “I have a herd of beef cattle and I’ve been raising beef and in the county for 40-some years.”
Mickey has won plenty of ribbons, but it’s the camaraderie inside and outside the pens and the yearlong process of learning how to care for, prepare and train cattle for competition that kept Mickey returning to the ring over the years.
“I enjoy the friends we’ve made and the competition is kind of fun, but it’s a win or lose,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
After all, showing off a bovine beauty before a judge during the fair takes about three minutes, Mickey said. Eating a funnel cake takes longer. But preparing for cattle for show takes steady, persistent work, Mickey explained.
“The cycle typically is to buy a calf at auction in the fall, feed it for a year, get the veterinarian bills paid for, and make sure everything is right – the equipment, halters and everything,” he said. “There’s more to it than what you see.”
Mickey said it has been friends who have been generous with their knowledge, patiently answering his smart and dumb questions alike, that has allowed him to learn to be a successful cattleman.
“You know people who are willing to help you out,” he said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here with talking about these cattle if I hadn’t had many, many people helped me.”
All this week in preparation for the fair Mickey will be training a heifer and a bull to follow and behave on a leash, just like a pet. Then the primping begins, the scrubdowns and hair clipping ahead of the fair showings.
“It’s like getting a woman getting ready for a beauty contest,” he said.
Mickey’s been producing registered purebred Hereford as a hobby business since 1978. “All my cows have a pedigree,” he said, explaining the value of bovine genetics and lineage. “I know more about them than I know about my wife.”
The goal is to get the calves to weigh between 500 and 600 pounds when they go market, he said.
In recent decades, Mickey’s grandchildren have gotten involved in the fair while visiting Charles Town over the summer.
Mickey said he has enjoyed watching his family nurture a deep interest in agriculture. His son is an agricultural extension agent. One grandson is a veterinarian. A granddaughter is doing research on whales and dolphins. Another grandson works with birds a zoo in Indianapolis.
Another granddaughter, the lawyer in the family, added to the family menagerie of sorts by adopting a pet she dearly loves, Mickey added.
“The kids all have a little bit of this in them,” the former junior high teacher said. “It’s been it’s been an important part of our lives.”
Mickey said he’s had a good run in the ring and doesn’t want to go out with an injury. One swift kick from a cow could mean a broken leg to the person showing the animal, he explains.
So this year he’ll let someone else will take his spot in the judging ring. He plans to be in the bleachers smiling and waving to friends.
“I have to be realistic about this,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I have to be smart enough to know now is the time.”