Couple competing in North American International Livestock Exposition

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Rhonda Diest stands, above, with Jackpot, her big bull. The nose ring is required for show bulls over seven months old.

By Karen Hall

Staff Writer

This month, a truck and trailer will carefully make their way around the bends on McDaniel Hollow Road, just north of Cornersville, and head up I-65 to the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

On Nov. 15, Darryl and Rhonda Diest will be in the truck, and four of their prize-winning Red Angus cattle will be in the trailer. The cattle are named Tiffany, Sampson, Lady Marmalade, and Chilhowee.

They're going to compete in the Red Angus National Regional Show at the 38th Annual North American International Livestock Exposition, "the world's largest purebred livestock show, with more than 23,000 entries and nearly $700,000 in prizes," according to show leaders.

"The North American is our big show," Rhonda said.

On the 15th they'll arrive and get set up. It can take up to an hour to get their display table, curtains and stall cards arranged before the cattle are brought in to the stalls.

"We put up a pretty nice little display," Rhonda says modestly. "Putting it up is fun; taking it down is not. This is a lot of work. You have to enjoy it to be doing it."

Nov. 16, there's a Red Angus sale, a great opportunity to catch up with friends and fellow breeders.

"We're all really good friends," Rhonda said. "It's a very tight-knit group." She's proud to have recently been chosen to serve on the national association's Junior Activities Committee.

Nov. 17 is the big day, show day, and that means a very early start. The show begins at 8 a.m. and the cattle take at least four hours to get ready. They have to be led in from the nighttime tie-outs and fed their usual breakfast: Co-op All-Natural Pellets. Then they are bathed and blow-dried.

Yes, there are blow driers for animals, and they are big and noisy.

Finally, a variety of styling products are applied to give just the right degree of fluff and shine to the animals' hair, and a few finishing touches may be required with clippers or scissors.

The cattle will have already had the basic trimming at home. Rhonda grew up in the cattle business and learned trimming from her parents. Her parents will be taking five animals to the North American show; one of them for a 4-Her.

"We're family, but at the shows it's all about competing," she laughed.

Rhonda and Darryl both have full-time jobs, but she calls raising cattle "our fun job," and says it's "very calming" to go out among the herd after a stressful day at work.

It's also calming to sit on the Diest's front porch, looking south over the bulls' pasture. All three of the bulls in that pasture now, Chilhowee, Grindstone and Jackpot, were raised on the farm, as were their mothers and fathers before them.

"It means more to win with animals I raised myself," Rhonda said. "'Bred by Exhibitor' - that's the ribbon you want to win."

Their twin boys, now 22 years old, showed all through 4H, but when the boys got too old to compete their parents "couldn't give it up," the family confides.

Each year they take cattle to five or six county fairs: the Tennessee State Fair; the Dixie National in Jackson, Miss.; and, this month, the North American.

Rhonda says she's met exhibitors from all over the country who say the facility in Louisville is best - anywhere. It has over 1,200,000 square feet of climate-controlled exhibition space.

"We don't usually win a lot at big shows," Rhonda said. "We produce seed stock animals for other people. We just happen to show them, too. It's just a bonus for us if they make a show animal, but their show career is temporary."

There's prize money if you win, but Rhonda says, "Your expenses always exceed your prize money." For instance, in Louisville she estimates they'll spent up to $150 just for shavings to bed their four stalls. Then there's the cost of fuel, and room and meals.

But showing is a marketing tool. People get to meet them and see their best cattle. They've also sold straight off the farm, and in Red Angus sales put on by the regional groups. That's where Jackpot, the biggest bull, is going this spring.

"The best bull we ever raised," Mojo, is now in Texas, Rhonda says. "He's a happy boy down there." Other Swan Creek cattle are in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

"It's kind of neat. We're such a small farm, but people like our genetics," Rhonda said. "Your integrity dictates your business," she continued. "Word spreads pretty fast" if a breeder does something wrong.

The Sunday afternoon that Rhonda was talking and showing off her cattle, Darryl was taking a break from farm life at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, cheering on the New York Jets with his three brothers, his nephew and niece, and son Matthew. Son James was too busy with his job as a crew chief working on planes for the Air National Guard to accompany them. Darryl's originally from Long Island, but he and Rhonda met in Memphis, through a mutual friend, when he was in naval training at Millington, and she was a college student. They celebrated their 25th anniversary in August. Darryl retired from the Navy after eight years, of which the couple spent four in Jacksonville, Fla. and four in Maryland. They knew they wanted to raise the twins on a farm, so they came back to her home state, Tennessee, where Darryl learned to be a farmer. He works for a company in Huntsville, Ala. that builds and tests equipment for nuclear power plants, while Rhonda is employed by AT&T in Lewisburg.

"If I didn't have a real job I'd be on this porch quite often," said Rhonda at the end of a perfect fall afternoon.

Also going to the NAILE from Marshall County are 4-Hers Claire and Kendall Garrell of Petersburg. The sisters have been active showing cattle for several years and will be competing with polled Herefords in one of the junior shows scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 12 and 13. The NAILE is home to many youth activities, including the Eastern National 4-H Horse roundup, the national 4-H livestock judging contest, dairy judging contests and quiz bowl, and the national 4-H poultry and egg conference.

Youth exhibitors also enter market animals, targeted for meat production, in the Junior Steer Show, Junior Market Swine Show, or Junior Wether Show. These shows are sponsored by Farm Credit Services of Mid-America and are nationally recognized for both the quality of competition and the prestige of winning. Champions from these shows will be sold at the Sale of Champions on Nov. 17. Last year, the Grand Champion Steer, exhibited by Cody Burke of Genoa, Neb., sold for $25,000 to a group of buyers who then donated the meat to Kentucky Harvest, an organization that helps feed the homeless in the Louisville area.