Every morning when Riley Bilbrey wakes up, he heads to the school’s livestock barn to feed his pigs. As soon as school is over the Wylie junior heads back to feed, exercise and wash them.
Such is the life of a Wylie ag student during Stock Show season.
“It’s a lot of hard work and dedication,” Riley said. “It’s bizarre how many tedious little things you have to do.”
Riley is just one of many Wylie FFA students who spend their year raising and working animals in preparation for Stock Show season in the Spring. They raise chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, cattle and pigs for showing.
The season kicks off with the Wylie show in January and then students are off to the Taylor County Show. Many continue showing through March at the state’s major shows in San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth and Houston.
Leighton Phillips, a 5th-grader at Wylie East Junior High, won grand champion of her breed in Fort Worth with her pig Nelson. The pig qualified for the show’s auction and brought Leighton $30,000, which went to her college fund. She wants to be a vet or an ag teacher.
Leighton said she got into showing because of her parents.
“My parents grew up showing animals,” she said. “It kind of ran in the family. That’s how I decided to show pigs.”
Leighton loved it from day one, but she agreed it takes a lot of work.
“You have to feed them in the morning and night,” she said. “We typically wash them every day. We keep them brushed. We exercise them. We completely clean our pens once a week. It’s all worth it in the end.”
Although some of her pigs outweigh her by more than 250 pounds, Leighton said she is not afraid of them.
“I’ve never been scared of them,” she said. “I trust them like my friends. Every pig is different. Some pigs you have to tap them lightly to get their heads up. Some are more difficult. Some are a lot harder than others. We have to work with them every day.”
Leighton admits that she tends to get a little too attached to her pigs. The major shows are terminal shows, which means the pigs are either sold at auction or sold to market. Pigs are not only used for food, but pig by-products are used in many medicines and every-day products.
“It’s hard,” Leighton said. “Nelson and my pig Pepsi were my favorites. Pepsi, I loved his personality. I loved everything about him. Nelson was a very playful pig. He was a screamer, but he goes down as one of my favorites.
“You get so attached to them. But I like to think about it like they are going to feed America and save lives.”
Riley said he too had a problem of getting too attached to his pigs.
“They have their own separate personalities just like humans,” he said. “My first year I got really attached. It was pretty hard at the terminal shows. It’s easier now. You learn to set a boundary with getting attached to them.”
Aubrey Meador, a Wylie sophomore, shows heifers in breeding shows, so she doesn’t have to worry about getting attached. Once a heifer has shown for two years, it goes back into her family’s breeding herd. It’s a good thing, Aubrey said, because she definitely gets attached.
“They are like my big ole babies,” she said. “I have one that’s like a big ole puppy dog. It follows me around the pen like a dog.”
Aubrey and her sister Shaylee began showing rabbits when Aubrey was only 7 years old because of their grandfather.
“My grandpa raised rabbits when I was little, and he raised rabbits when my mom was young,” Aubrey said. “So it’s generation after generation. I was really drawn to it. I love animals.”
Aubrey likes showing rabbits, but she talked her parents in to letting her also show heifers, which is now her first love.
“I wanted to do it for a long time,” she said. “I was like let’s try it. I loved it ever since. You get them at six months old, and they are wild. You halter break them. You have to feed them every morning and night. You wash them. You have a lot of responsibility. It’s not easy.”
Aubrey, who is vice president of the Wylie FFA chapter, said she certainly would not be able to show without the support and involvement of her parents. She and Shaylee and her parents and even her aunt and cousins travel together to shows.
“The time, the money, the effort that goes into it,” Aubrey said. “There’s no way I could do it without their support. It takes the whole entire family. It takes a herd.”
“I like that it is a family project,” Leighton said. “I don’t just go down to the barn by myself.”
She, her parents and her younger brother Remington work in the barn every evening and most of the weekend. And they travel to shows together, which Leighton said is one of her favorite things. She loves hanging out at the shows with her FFA friends, keeping the pens watered and taking care of her pigs.
“My favorite thing is friends and family,” she said. “I have so many friends in the FFA. They are like family. It’s really fun. ”Riley said people at stock shows help each other and cheer for each other, even though they are competitors. “It’s a team effort,” he said. “Stock show is like a second family pretty much.”
Riley said he also has amazing support from his parents, and he said Wylie Ag Teacher Cody Smith is great.
“He’s really helpful,” Riley said. “He’s up there (at the livestock barn) every day.”
Riley, who is reporter of the FFA chapter, didn’t start showing pigs until his freshman year in high school. He did it at the urging of his friends and because he thought it would help his career goal of breeding animals.
“As soon as I walked into the ag barn my freshman year, I knew I wanted to do this,” he said. “I want to breed swine and cattle. This teaches responsibility and etiquette.”
He said he can’t really explain the feeling of being in the show ring with your animal.
“You walk into the ring, and this adrenaline rush kicks in,” he said. “It’s kind of addicting.”
During a show, judges are focused on the quality of the animal, but students also have the opportunity to win showmanship awards. Those awards are based on the performance of the handler.
“They don’t judge your pig, they judge how you do,” Leighton said. “I love it. My secret is you have to look comfortable. You also have to look at the judge a lot. You shake their hand and smile even if you get last place.”
Wylie’s FFA members say that even though showing takes a lot of work, the rewards are worth it.
“It’s amazing,” said Aubrey, who hopes to one day be an ag teacher or a county extension agent. “Some shows you don’t get the results you want, but if you do really good, it is an honor. And you meet so many new people – amazing people. It’s worth it in the end because of the results and all the friendships you build.”