Renee Sheaffer Koster (right) talks to the father of some exhibitors at the dairy show at the Lee County 4-H Fair as she hands out winner’s certificates. Koster started in 4-H showing bottle calves and took over as superintendent of the dairy show after returning from college. Showing calves in 4-H helped her to develop the confidence and communication skills necessary to operate Windsweep Farm, the pasture-raised livestock farm that she operates with her father, Leonard.
Renee Sheaffer Koster (right) talks to the father of some exhibitors at the dairy show at the Lee County 4-H Fair as she hands out winner’s certificates. Koster started in 4-H showing bottle calves and took over as superintendent of the dairy show after returning from college. Showing calves in 4-H helped her to develop the confidence and communication skills necessary to operate Windsweep Farm, the pasture-raised livestock farm that she operates with her father, Leonard.
AMBOY, Ill. — When she sits at the judging table for the dairy show classes at the Lee County 4-H Fair, Renee Sheaffer Koster sees things from a different perspective.

But she knows firsthand what the young competitors are going through just a few feet in front of her, as a judge strolls the ring, carefully perusing each entry, asking competitors to move their cattle forward.

“I remember what I was like when you thought your calf was in first and then the judge came up and had you move down,” Sheaffer Koster said.

A little more than a decade ago, she was in the ring, leading a series of bottle calves and dairy heifers through the paces as a member of the Palmyra Pixies and Patriots, a 4-H chapter that has since disbanded.

For Sheaffer Koster, who still speaks softly, being in 4-H helped make it easier to talk to people.

“I was shy talking in front of groups and talking to people I didn’t know well. By the time I was showing, it wasn’t really scary for me because I was with my calf and I was used to her, I walked with her every day,” she said.

Learning Skills

Sheaffer Koster said that being in 4-H, she started in 2001, helped develop a set of skills she uses today.

“You had to talk and give demonstrations in 4-H. I was kind of shy so showing and being in front of all those people and having to talk to the judges, being involved in the demonstrations and speaking in 4-H, I learned a lot of communication skills and a lot of leadership skills,” she said.

She was used to being around livestock — her father had dairy cattle until 1996 — but she still learned the details of animal care.

“As far as the cattle, just taking care of them, not just during the fair and for the show, but leading up to it, training is a big thing, you have to be able to handle the animal and take care of it. It teaches you a lot of responsibility,” she said.

After her heifer calf won first in her class and reserve champion junior animal, Leonard Sheaffer relented and let his daughter keep the calf.

“That’s how it got started,” Sheaffer Koster said.

“It” actually started with her great-grandfather, who bought the acreage that now is Windsweep Farm. Sheaffer Koster is the fourth generation of Sheaffers to raise livestock on the farm.

When that first heifer calf had a calf of its own, Sheaffer found herself with extra milk. That meant buying more bottle calves. She continued to show at the 4-H fair as she built the business up.

“I had to do something with the milk, so I started buying calves. I decided to finish cattle for a 4-H project, not show them, but to do an animal science project. That’s when we started finishing cattle and selling quarters and halves,” she said.

Class Warfare?

She joined the dairy show committee before she left to attend college at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville. Her father was serving as dairy show superintendent at the time, but Sheaffer Koster was concerned that a debate over classes was overshadowing what she saw as the primary reason for the show.

“Part of my motivation for wanting to get involved was there would be so many arguments about showing grade and registered animals. I was thinking this is 4-H. This is for the kids to learn responsibility, leadership skills, communication, how to take care of an animal. It shouldn’t have anything to do with if your animal has papers or if it doesn’t,” she said.

When she went to Platteville, Sheaffer Koster continued building the pasture-raised meat and poultry business. She would go to the computer lab, ostensibly to work on homework, and find herself answering email inquiries about and taking orders for Windsweep Farm.

She resumed her duties as superintendent when she returned to the farm after graduating in 2009.

When she sits down at the show, it’s after a week of hectic preparation for the fair itself.

“During fair week I go down and put up exhibitor signs. When people check in on the first day, I make sure everybody has checked in and that they’ve had the vet check their health papers, make sure they aren’t having any problems. The day of the show I type up the classes and who’s in the classes and distribute that and put up the show schedule. Then I hand out the ribbons and write down how everyone placed. Before the show, I have to arrange for a judge and make sure they can be there,” she said.

Those communication skills come in handy at a time when fairs such as the Lee County 4-H Fair need all the financial help they can find.

“I try to get around to local businesses and see if anyone can donate money to cover the costs of trophies. The trophies and ribbons mean a lot to the kids and Extension doesn’t have a lot of money,” Sheaffer Koster said.

She sums up the journey that has taken her from the show ring through building a farm business to viewing the show action from the judges’ table.

“I enjoy it,” she said.