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EXETER â€“ The name Oatley, which is synonymous in Exeter with breakfast, is also synonymous with beef, as in prize-winning steers including the most recent standout â€“ the Grand Champion of the Eastern States Exposition, raised by 16-year-old Ethan Oatley and shown earlier this fall.
According to an official announcement, Donald R. Chase, â€śBig Eâ€ť board chairman bought Ethanâ€™s 1,285-pound steer, winner in the medium weight division, for $6.60 a pound, totaling $8,481 during the 4-H Beef Auction. Apparently itâ€™s become a tradition for the chairman to make this symbolic purchase. Competing 4-H members exhibit grain-fed beef cattle theyâ€™ve raised from birth, meticulously maintaining records of the animalsâ€™ development. Proceeds from the auctions help club participants support the organizationâ€™s beef program, various projects and assist with college tuition.
Ethan, a junior at Exeter-West Greenwich High School, showed his first steer at the age of three â€“ at the North Stonington (Connecticut) Fair â€“ where his entry was named Reserve Champion. He was 13 when he first tested the waters of the Big E but other family members had preceded him into the winnerâ€™s circle.
His dad, Vern, who began showing steers at age 8, won the Big E in 1982.
And then in 2008, Ethanâ€™s sister Victoria swept the field at the Eastern States, taking Grand Champion in two weight classes and Reserve Grand Champion in a third â€“ a feat never before accomplished. Now 20, Victoria is studying agriculture at Oklahoma State University where Ethan plans to join her in a year after he finishes high school.
That will leave Olivia, 11, who is raising her own steer named Havoc.
â€śWe work together,â€ť Terrie Oatley says of her family. Her own chores include picking up and hauling grain from Allieâ€™s as well as feeding the stock because â€śtheyâ€™re all on different rations.â€ť Everybody pitches in to clean up after the cattle.
Vern and a brother volunteer with 4-H and the shows. Terrieâ€™s late mother, Rachel Gauvin â€“ who is very much missed â€“ had multiple jobs when the family was on the road at shows.
â€śShe was the mess cook, ran the camper, took the pictures and labeled everythingâ€ť after competition victories Terrie recalls.
A member of the 4-H club Gotcha Talkinâ€™, Ethan says he basically was born with farmerâ€™s genes in his farmerâ€™s jeans.
â€śI always wanted to do it,â€ť he says of the love of cattle that has become his passion. â€śI had toy cows when I was little. My sister and I pretended to show them,â€ť even making halters from string.
At the moment Ethan is raising three steers: Bullet, Jagger and a small one named Ricochet. When he gets home from school, he takes the trio through a set routine.
â€śTheyâ€™re tied up every day. I use a [giant] hairdryer â€“ more like a leaf blower â€“ to blow out all their hair and remove shavings and other debris. Then theyâ€™re misted before a final dry-out with a special conditioner that uses olive oil to create a sheen. Theyâ€™re combed to stimulate hair growth.â€ť
His mom adds, â€śItâ€™s a beauty pageantâ€ť which begs the question: Is it too late to rename one of them Honey Boo-Boo?
The herd has been pared to a more manageable 14 head from 24. â€śIn the spring weâ€™ll have a bunch of babies,â€ť Ethan explains.
While he admits he and Victoria have always gone â€śback and forthâ€ť with their victories â€“ he would win one event and she would take the next â€“ he says the friendly rivalry might someday result in a perfect collaboration.
Perhaps the two of them will own a business together, producing championship cattle and making Oatley a nationally-known name.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance journalist for SRIN.