Reading cattle and kids: using the lessons from dad
Sara Shields snuck away from the hay field for a few days to work the ring in the junior cattle shows at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. She kept the ring organized and moving, something Robyn Toft, the CSF livestock events coordinator said, she does better than anyone else she’s ever worked with. She made the youngest exhibitors feel safe and made sure the judge had a good look at each calf. She appeared when stubborn steers didn’t want to move forward and stepped in to help small showmen with pushy calves stop without making a scene or a fuss. She quietly read cattle and kids all day and she’ll do it again in Denver in January. Shields said she’s the lucky one, having the chance to see a generation of livestock kids grow up and see them now as they bring their own kids to exhibit at Pueblo.
“I remember when Tami (Norgren) Arnold brought me Mesa in Mesa’s first year and told her I had helped her and Mesa’s dad their first year showing and the whole way through,” she said. “I don’t take that as me being dated, I just think I’m so lucky because I’m seeing some great kids. It’s been such a gift for me.”
Her first year as a National Western Stock Show staffer was her sophomore year at Colorado State University in 1989. She worked in the press room as an intern. She ran results from the ring to the office and eventually found her way to the entry office when Corinne Hummel was the livestock manager. Through the years she returned to the Yards and worked with Chuck Sylvester, Tom Stromberg, and Pat Grant, among others. She was eventually hired as a livestock superintendent, splitting her time between the Yards and the Hill. She said she wants each youth exhibitor to have a good experience and be safe.
“I know these families spend a lot of money to come to Denver, no matter what cattle they brought, they invested a lot to get them there and give them that experience,” she said. “I want them to walk away and say that Denver and state fair treated me well and we had great help and people were fun.”
Shields grew up at the base of the Sangre de Cristos on the San Isabel Ranch four miles west of Westcliffe, Colo. She learned to read cattle working with her father, Dr. Ben Kettle. Kettle, a cattleman and veterinarian, graduated from Colorado A & M in 1933. His senior year was the first year that women were allowed admittance into the School of Veterinary Medicine. She said at the time, he vocally opposed this decision. Shields said God’s sense of humor shone through when Kettle was given six girls and often had an all-girl crew to work cattle.
Kettle showed registered horned Hereford carload bulls at the National Western Stock Show and was, she said, a thought leader for the agriculture industry. He was an integral part of the research into brisket or high-altitude disease at CSU, something she discovered when she was a student there writing about the topic. Dr. Tim Holt, renowned for his work to develop and perfect PAP testing in high altitude cattle, told her she should ask her dad about his work as a part of her research. She said Dr. Kettle was humble and had never mentioned the role he had played. She said her dad was a fine man and taught his children the importance of giving back.
She said she and her sister always showed home-raised steers from the genetics her dad worked to develop, improve, and keep in the front of cattlemen’s minds when it was time to purchase quality herd sires.
“I loved and was so humbled I got to show the cattle my dad raised and if I could win showmanship and stand in my weight class — you know I was never going to beat a show steer with a straight-bred Hereford steer — but if I could hang in there and make the champion drive and if I could win showmanship every time, that was where my heart was,” she said.
The lessons about reading cattle that she learned from her dad are the ones she said helped her during her showing career, and they’re the ones she uses in the ring helping young cattle exhibitors at CSF and NWSS. She said she has a soft spot for the kids who, like she did, know their steers from hours of putting in the work at home as a family. The steers, she said, show her which of them know their kids and the like.
When Shields graduated from CSU she found her way to Nebraska to work for the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association. One fall when she was home helping, she said her dad flipped a bucket over, lowered himself to sit on it, and told her he had waited a long time for her to come home so he could sit back and allow her to preg check heifers. Working together, he continued to teach her how to best time rotational grazing by listening to the ground and watching for subtle signs of early sickness in cattle, and always reading them.
When he and her mom, Bet, who she said was a spitfire, were ready to slow down her dad called her in Nebraska to tell her he needed “a little calving help.” He knew, she said, she never wanted to leave the ranch, so the opportunity was exciting. Dr. Kettle had five children from a previous marriage, Bet had three, and together the couple had two more daughters, the youngest was Sara. She said she never felt entitled to return to the ranch and communicated with all of her siblings about the possibility. She returned to the ranch with their support and blessing and has been there since. Dr. Kettle and Bet have both passed away now, both having left their signatures on the ranch and the state’s cattle industry.
The house she and her husband, Mike, live in is the home she grew up in. Her living room is the original log cabin that her great grandpa built after immigrating to Colorado in 1869. He filed his homestead claim in 1872.
“I got to be the kid out of 10 children to come home and be in the very house I grew up in and try to hang onto that deep traditional set of roots,” she said.
The Shields still have some Hereford cross cows, though they were forced to pare down in 2017 during an exceptionally dry year. Mike worked for about 20 years next to Dr. Kettle, selecting bulls and building upon the foundational herd that signaled back to his years campaigning bulls in the NWSS Yards. Selling the purebred Hereford herd to survive dry years was a difficult decision, she said, and it was the same year she said Mike was called to pastor the local cowboy church, something she said they didn’t see coming.
“I knew that was the Lord asking if we were going to make this ranch our idol, or would we go where you’re being called and He would let us stay where we had been since I was a little kid,” she said.
That call to the church wasn’t a new chapter in Mike’s story, though. Shields said when Mike was born, complications prompted the doctor to ask his dad, Mike Sr., to choose whether he should save baby Mike or his wife. He hit his knees and promised to go wherever he was called if only both would be spared. At the time, she said Mike’s parents were trying to purchase a ranch in Utah. He was, instead, called to pastor a little church in Evergreen, back when it was still a ranching community. He managed a ranch in that area and spent over 40 years leading nondenominational churches in small communities.
Mike found his way to Nebraska while his dad was pastoring a church near Bassett, and went to college there on a basketball scholarship. Even though Bassett was in her territory while she was working for Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association, the two didn’t cross paths until she had returned to the ranch in 1995. At the time, Mike was working for an implement dealer, and they crossed paths. Several years later, he was managing a ranch just a few miles south of the San Isabel. She said he was dealing with a set of sick calves and made his way to the ranch to seek out Dr. Kettle’s guidance. The rest, she said, is history and all a part of God’s plan.
There are still a few purebred horned Herefords on the ranch, though these days, they’re primarily Angus and Red Angus back to Red Angus bulls. Customer yearlings and a hay operation round out the San Isabel.