Dane County kids learn dedication, morals in journey to State Fair

Dane County kids learn dedication, morals in journey to State Fair
Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The Wisconsin State Fair is underway this week at State Fair Park in West Allis. For thousands of kids from across the state, this week is the Super Bowl. It marks the culmination of years of hard work and preparation trying to earn a ribbon with a prized animal in the show ring.

Long before the fair gates open to the public at 8 a.m., exhibitors in the barns have already put in several hours of work.

Kajal Russell, 19, and her 16-year-old brother, Girish, are showing steers at the fair this year. The Russells get up every morning and are in the barn by 4:30 a.m. “We have to feed them, make sure they clean water, exercise them and clean the stall.” Kajal said.

Girish said, “There’s a lot of daily care, especially the transition from county to State Fair. It’s a little more tricky because when they go to county they get off feed so they might weigh a little bit less so you have to get them back.”

Getting up before dawn to care for livestock is a daily routine for many in Wisconsin but, if you’re not a farmer, it’s hard to understand the commitment it takes.

“It’s way overused but if you’re a farm kid, you have a work ethic that a lot of people can’t fathom,” Farm broadcaster Pam Jahnke said. “Farm kids don’t know how many hours they work in a week. You get the job done. They’re about completing a task, not watching the clock. When you look at the State Fair experience, that is a perfect example of the farm kid ethic.”

Kajal and Girish were adopted from India as infants into a Wisconsin farm family. Alicia and Ron Russell raised their six children on their Brooklyn farm and got them enrolled in the Brooklyn Mighty Mites 4-H Club. Kajal and Girish started showing animals as soon as they were big enough to walk. In January of this year, they each chose a steer and a heifer to prepare for fair season. It’s been an eight-hour a day job ever since.

“Either my dad gets up early or we get up early at 6 a.m. and feed them,” Girish said. “Then, we wash them, blow them out to dry and comb them and put them in the fan room where it’s cool. In the evening, I usually take mine for a really long walk.”

Kajal said, “It’s basically a morning routine and evening routine. I walk mine really far because I’m trying to get the stubbornness out of him.”

Kajal’s steer Marvel won Champion Gain this year at the Dane County Fair. It gained 4 pounds a day consistently. Girish’s steer is Doak Walker named after the trophy given each year to the top running back in college football.

“I’m very competitive,” Girish said. “My favorite thing to do is get in the show ring and my favorite event is Showmanship because that actually tests how good of a showman you are, not how good your animal is.”

Years of showings have had their ups and downs for the Russells but the fair experience has taught them many lessons and skills for the future.

Kajal said, “It kind of makes you more open to talking to a wide range of people cause when I was little, I was terrified. I would hide behind my moms legs and now, I love talking to people about cows. It’s what I want to do when I get older, something involving livestock.”

Girish said, “It teaches you dedication and morals. Getting up early to work with animals takes a lot of dedication.”

Pam Jahnke, who grew up on a a dairy farm near Oconto, WI says some of the best State Fair experience happen behind the scenes.

“You’re seeing the finished product,” Jahnke said. “There’s a whole lot of work, sweat and probably some tears that went into getting it there. You don’t see the camaraderie in the barns where an older member might share some tips or help a younger member. You don’t see the horseplay that happens in the barns, which is part of being a kid and just having a blast. Those are some of my best memories.”

The Junior Show for market steers was held at the State Fair on Wednesday. When the moment of truth finally arrived, the competition in the show ring was intense. Girish’s steer, Doak Walker, came in fifth place and Kajal’s steer, Marvel, placed sixth in the Crossbred Division. Both kids say learning to handle disappointment and learning from mistakes is all part of the fair experience.

“It’s what I expected, honestly, but I came to have fun. You win some, you lose some and I’m already planning for next year,” Kajal said.