Grand Champion of Sales, Illinois

Taylor Donelson, 19, gives Scotty, her Land of Lincoln Grand Champion Steer, a bath after the Governor’s Sale of Champions. Photo by Erin Hooley, Chicago Tribune.

For many young people, showing livestock is about much more than winning a prize. The journey to each competition includes hours of preparation, often instilling qualities that benefit kids as they move toward adulthood.

“As students prepare animals for competition, it’s a great deal of work that requires time management, problem-solving skills and quick thinking,” says Mindy Bunselmeyer, executive director of the Illinois FFA Center. “All of these are life skills that will better prepare them for their future.”

In Illinois, the state fair is typically one of the most anticipated annual events for students showing livestock. The Illinois State Fair features junior livestock events, an open livestock division, a western horse show and the Governor’s Sale of Champions, during which winning exhibitors auction off their animals to the highest bidder. In 2015, the sale saw record-breaking bids and raised $275,450 for junior exhibitors, and state 4-H and FFA youth education programs.

Sale of Champions

“All 4-H and FFA members benefit from the Governor’s Sale of Champions as 10 percent of the money raised through the auction goes back to each of the youth organizations,” Bunselmeyer says. “The Illinois Foundation FFA uses a portion of the funds raised to help support chapters that will be representing the Illinois FFA in national FFA career development events.”

Taylor Donelson, a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, sold her Land of Lincoln Grand Champion Steer, Scotty, to Gov. Bruce Rauner for an unmatched $61,000 during the 2015 sale. She says her family has shown livestock for more than 45 years, and she is the first to participate in the Governor’s Sale of Champions.

Contestants show their livestock during the 2015 Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

Contestants show their livestock during the 2015 Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

“My family is so excited,” Donelson says. “We’re still in shock. It’s been a long time coming, and we’re very thankful.”

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Donelson usually names her livestock after country music artists, and this steer was no exception. She named him after TV show American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, who happened to be performing at the fair and attended the auction after hearing about his namesake. He surprised Donelson at the auction by helping Gov. Rauner bid on her champion steer. While Donelson won’t be pursuing an agriculture-related career – she’s studying physical therapy – she believes her experience raising and showing livestock will serve her for years to come.

“Everything I’ve learned through showing cattle and growing up in this industry has taught me so much that I use every day,” Donelson says, adding that competing has taught her much more than just “how to brush a steer.”

Family Traditions

Junior high students are also finding success in showing livestock. In 2015, 13-year-old Morgan Wilderman had the Grand Champion Rabbit Meat Pen Trio at the Illinois State Fair and sold the rabbits for $4,500 at the Governor’s Sale of Champions.

Raising and showing livestock is a family tradition, but she’s the first one in the family to show rabbits.

“I’m learning tons of responsibility,” Wilderman says.

Although this young student stays busy – she also belongs to the Bond County 4-H organization and plays on the school’s basketball team – she properly cares for the rabbits.

Every evening, Wilderman makes sure they have plenty of food and water, and cleans, grooms and administers medication when necessary – all while learning important life skills during the process. And, of course, she weighs the rabbits regularly to ensure they do not exceed 5 pounds so they can remain eligible to compete in shows.

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