When Taylor and Harleigh Carlson were little, they’d sit in the barn and read books to their cows.
That was their job. The cattle got used to having kids around, which made them easier to halter-break and train for cattle shows.
Taylor and Harleigh were practically born into 4-H and cattle showing.
Their dad Trevor grew up in Elm Creek as a 4-H kid, and once he aged out he became a leader. Mom Lisa, who’d never stepped foot on a farm until she dated Trevor, said she married into 4-H leadership.
Taylor, now 17, showed her first cow at age four. Harleigh, now 15, was in her first show at three. That was too young to be actual 4-H members, so they joined the group when they were seven or eight.
When they got older, Taylor and Harleigh took more active roles in feeding, training and grooming their heifers for show.
Cattle showing has become a bit of a disease, Trevor joked. It’s a family gag — what would a vacation be without cattle?
“My mom still laughs — who is city born through and through — about her cowgirl granddaughters and going to cattle shows on our holidays,” Lisa said.
In the last year, however, the family has found another audience for their cattle — school kids in the city.
Elm Creek School — where Lisa teaches and Harleigh and Taylor are students — has a program for high schoolers called “STRIVE.” The program lets students design assignments for themselves to gain real-world experience in topics they enjoy.
The summer prior, the family brought some of the animals to the Manitoba Stampede in Morris. They estimated they saw about 1,500 people throughout the event, and they witnessed first hand that people just didn’t know much about agriculture. The old links to family farms no long existed, and some people didn’t know basic things about farm animals.
Together, Taylor and Harleigh designed the Mobile Educational Livestock Display, or MELD. Throughout the spring and summer, they travelled to elementary schools with their mom and dad and let students meet their animals.
There’s Ralph, a hair sheep that’s a real cuddle bug, Spooky the fainting goat and her kid (and another on the way), the most relaxed bull in the world, a cow-calf pair, and two inseparable heifers. They’ve also designed displays, colouring pages, and an ear-tattooing activity.
They give kids a rundown of each animal they’ve brought and leave time open for kids to ask questions — and boy, do they ask!
At one school, the kids wanted to know why bull calves are castrated.
“Some of the kids thought that was horrendous,” Trevor said.
Taken aback, Trevor asked the kids if any of them had older brothers. He asked one girl what happened when her older brothers got together with other teenage boys.
“They fight and do stupid things,” she said.
It was the perfect answer, Trevor said.
They’ve also had to answer a student’s questions about sow farrowing crates. The youngster had obviously done her reading. However, when they explained that pigs might hurt or eat their own young, she finally understood.
“I don’t sugar-coat anything,” Trevor said. “You’ve got to be prepared for some tough questions.
“What we think is simple and basic, but to someone who’s never been around, obviously it’s not. It’s confusing,” Trevor said.
One time when they arrived at a Winnipeg school, kids ran over shouting, “The horses are here! The horses are here!”
They had to start with “these are cows,” Lisa said.
“I believe in educating our consumer,” Trevor said. He said 4-H began as a way to educate kids on up-to-date farming techniques so they would, in turn, teach their families. This is similar.
“Dad always says if we’re one topic of conversation at somebody’s dinner table tonight, that’s enough,” Taylor said. “If somebody goes home and says, ‘Hey Mom, guess what. There was a cow at school today,’ that’s perfect — that memory will be in there for a while.”
Harleigh said she hopes they realize that “their meat just doesn’t appear in the grocery store. Like, that there is a story behind it.”