By Madi Kregel, OCJ field reporter
Like the rest of the world, show pig and lamb breeders and exhibitors had to do some adjusting this spring after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation some of the biggest livestock shows and sales, including the biggest show of the year, the Ohio State Fair.
The word “adjusting” suits the show pig and show lamb industry well at this point. Some in the two industries feared they’d see a lower volume in sales this spring, but instead saw sales similar, or even higher than in the past. Allen Johnson said web-based sales helped him make the adjustment to have a successful sale season for his business, Johnson Show Lambs.
“Our live sales were cancelled all together. As a result, we scrambled around and got pictures up on our webpage and fixed up a web-based sale through ShowStockPlanet and that was the platform we used to sell all of our wethers,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his wife Christy, along with their four children, raise show lambs on their farm in Wayne County. He said their sale average while participating in the online sales was very similar to, if not just as much as usual, while selling at the live sales they attend.
“From an uncertainty standpoint of not knowing if there would be shows or not knowing how many there would be, I expected the market to be soft and I think the longer it went, the softer the market did get,” Johnson said. “We were fortunate and were about the same as it had been the past few years.”
He was grateful for the online opprtunities this year, but in the future Johnson said he would rather have people see his lambs live rather than in a picture. He still prefers the live sale atmosphere compared to the online sales.
“When you’re buying from a picture and they’re not even completely sheared, I don’t want people to get home and get disappointed and think, ‘Gosh that’s not what I thought he was’ and when we take them to the sale and they’re sheared just like they show them, they are what they are,” he said.
The Johnsons as a family show at two to three jackpot lamb shows in the summer leading up to the State Fair and end with their county fair in September. He, like many, described the Ohio State Fair as “the highlight” and the “main goal” of the summer. Despite not having that highlight this year, the Johnsons have prepared for the summer show season like they have in the past, the difference being later jackpot shows and an Ohio Youth Livestock Expo instead of the Ohio State Fair.
“We kept some lambs and we always buy a few as well. Our thought was: I’d hate for them to have a show and us not to be ready. So we’re going to go at it like we’re going to show and we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Leading up to the bigger shows, the jackpot shows help breeders get a better idea of where their animals “need to be.” One of the places to judge that, as Johnson said, is in the ring next to another lamb. The difference this year compared to normal years is most jackpot shows were pushed back due to the pandemic, and the cancellation of the State Fair. Johnson said despite those two factors, the jackpost season has been fairly normal.
This year also brought about efforts to conduct virtual shows, which become an early trend during the pandemic. Exhibitors prepared themselves and their animals just like any other show, only they participated from their homes. Virtual shows required a video ranging from 30 seconds to a minute long featuring the exhibitor showing their animal as they normally would. While Johnson said virtual shows are harder to get into for show lambs, David Korb of Korb Farms, pointed out that show pig judges are used to judging “on the move.”
“I know especially in the show pig side of things, compared to other species, we can take a video and judge the animal a little more accurately because we judge them on the move. Most people are out walking in the yard to get their pigs ready for those shows anyway, so I guess it’s not hard to get mom or dad to hold a camera,” Korb said.
He and his father co-own their farm together in Oxford. Something they noticed and understood for a while during the 2020 sale season was the fear of the unknown getting in the way for buyers.
“We sold more because we had more available. But at the same time, we didn’t sell out like we typically do because I think at the county fair level, the people who are maybe not quite as serious didn’t buy that extra animal or two and decided they were gonna wait it out and not go ahead,” Korb said.
He said each year their sales have increased because their quality has increased, and despite the circumstances, this year was the best year they have had sales wise. Korb noticed the quality of show pigs sold this year across the industry was higher quality thanks to buyers who were serious and determined to show this summer. He said most of his purebred buyers take his barrows to the Ohio State Fair but he noticed that despite it being cancelled no one was “really backing away from it.”
“Our point was that if it does get cancelled, there are enough breeders and people in this state that will put something together. And that’s exactly what happened. As the State Fair gets cancelled, one door closes and another door opens,” Korb said.
Korb noticed the adjustment to online sales and how crowded they became. Some nights there were upwards 20 to 30 online sales going on. There were some challenges adjusting to online sales, with one of the biggest being getting a good video of the piglets.
“It’s not the easiest thing to do,” Korb said.
Exhibitors too had to adjust to the changes of 2020, but that adjustment came easily for Ashlyn O’Brien, a show lamb and pig exhibitor from Wood County. She joked about having the opportunity to spend more time with her animals and school being less of a priority on her radar when quarantine first began. O’Brien found some success in virtual shows this spring, though she admits the online experience is just not the same.
“Just like every other show we just shear the night before and get them ready. I felt like I didn’t try as much. But we just took them out in the yard, took our video and submitted it. Whenever you get the reactions or find out the awards, though, it’s just weird and you don’t feel as happy because it’s something you’re not used to, but it’s something good for everyone to experience,” she said.
For exhibtors, videos for virtual shows typically consisted of a 1 minute and 30 second time frame, and awards were announced a week later after judges took time to watch each video. O’Brien won multiple classes in the virtual shows she participated in and won Grand Weather and Grand Ewe in the Hutchinson Community College’s Virtual Salt City Showdown. Now that jackpot shows are opening back up, she said there is a larger appreciation for normalcy. She said it feels better to do well in live jackpot shows than in the virtual shows.
“They feel the same and going back to normal things just makes you appreciate everything like that more. Everyone is just happier and united because we all experienced this pandemic together,” she said.
With the Ohio Youth Livestock Expo on the calendar, O’Brien said the summer is beginning to feel like “a normal summer” again. She said the Ohio State Fair was where she was able to see her friends each summer. While she had a feeling her biggest show of the season would be cancelled, she also knew there would be some sort of show in the end. She said her breeders encouraged her to keep working with her animals and reassured her there would still be opportunities to show.
“Hopefully at the end of the summer I’ll be able to say it was all worth it,” O’Brien said. “Everything about this just makes you grateful for normal things, it was a weird experience but it’s something that I can look back on and think, ‘We made it through it.’”