For most kids, summer entails trips to the beach, hanging out downtown or watching movies.
But that’s not how it is at the Judge household, where three siblings — Ashley, 17, Jessica, 14, and Wyatt, 11 — are typically awake at 5:30 a.m.
“Some of my friends, they’ll wake up at noon,” said Ashley, who owns Tri-Star Cattle in San Luis Obispo with her two siblings. “I couldn’t sleep in until noon to save my life.”
The Judge kids are used to working seven days a week — as they do all year long.
But life intensifies before the fair season.
“It’s kind of hectic,” said Wyatt, wearing a T-shirt that proclaims, “I survived the cattle kids boot camp.”
While plenty of children show livestock at the fair, few actually own their own cattle business. The Judge siblings currently own 90 cattle — a number that is sure to grow after the California Mid-State Fair.
“The money they make at the fair, they reinvest that,” said mother Becky Judge.
Though parents Becky and Joel gave the kids their start, the business belongs to the kids, Joel said. To quote Cal Poly’s mantra, the kids are learning by doing. And the oldest, Ashley, soon to be a senior at San Luis Obispo High School, has been showing cattle since she was 9.
“It’s their money,” Joel said. “Tri-Star Cattle is their cattle. It’s not mine or Becky’s.”
On Monday, with just a few days before the state fair in Sacramento and nearly two weeks before the Mid-State Fair, all three siblings were washing several heifers on the family farm as a black and white cat cozied up to a couple of visitors.
“He helps supervise the cattle activity out here,” joked Joel as the cat playfully mewed.
While many farms are inherited, Joel and his brother were the first to collect cattle in their family. It wasn’t long before Joel was passing it along to his kids. Today, Ashley is an award-winning cowgirl (she’ll represent California in the beef proficiency contest during the FFA National Convention in Indianapolis this fall), and her siblings have followed suit.
At the Mid-State Fair, each of the kids will show two cattle — accounting for six of the 140 head of cattle that will compete this year. While the Judges compete nationwide, year-round, summer is clearly the busiest time on the farm.
The Judges finish feeding the cattle around 7:30 each morning, then eat breakfast themselves before returning to the barn to clean the cattle from 9 until 1 or 2. Around 6 p.m., they spend another couple of hours feeding the cattle one last time.
“We spend all of our time out here in the barn,” Ashley said.
Although they are self-sufficient, they don’t have to go far for guidance. Becky used to teach ag at Arroyo Grande High School, while Joel used to teach ag science at Cal Poly. Today, Joel consults, and the two of them manage the cattle for Spanish Oak Ranches.
They too participated in fairs when they were younger. But they weren’t involved in cattle the same way their kids are.
“What they have is a full-grown project,” Becky said.
Even though the parents provided the initial cattle, they insist that the children run the show. And when the kids auction cattle at the fair — a good one can sell for $10,000 to $15,000 — they will use the money to buy more.
“By the time Wyatt would get done with college, they could have 300 or 400 cows,” said Joel.
Four cows could put one of the kids through college. But ultimately, the family hopes, the siblings will all return to Tri-Star and work together.
The name itself indicates a sense of family closeness.
“Three has always kind of been our family’s lucky number,” said Ashley, who plans to eventually attend Oklahoma State University, where she will continue her ag work. “There’s three of us kids. We’re all three years apart. My parents are three years apart. The very first year I started out, I had three heifers and three pigs.”
Of course, at times, their friends don’t quite understand. Like when Jessica’s friends want to hang out downtown when she has work to do.
“They don’t really understand that I just can’t leave,” she said.
And something as simple as seeing a movie becomes a luxury.
“I haven’t been to a movie with a friend probably since winter break,” said Jessica, who, like brother Wyatt, is an Edna 4-H member.
Their parents try to reinforce the value of the work by stressing that it will help their future — and that if they work hard, they will have a business waiting for them after college. While the parents did break down and buy a Nintendo Wii last Christmas, they encourage the kids not to spend a lot of money on cars, stereos and video games.
“That money should be special,” Joel tells them. “You worked hard; you need to use that wisely.”
The children do sometimes wish they had more time for other things in the summer. But, Jessica said, more free time might just be wasted — which she sees with some of her friends. “When I go to their houses, they just sit around for five hours every day.”
Still, Wyatt is less enthusiastic than his sisters, preferring to hunt birds and play video games.
“It’s just a lot of work every day,” he said.
His parents hope that will change as he gets older. But ultimately it will be his decision.
“So many kids don’t want to stay in agriculture because it’s hard,” Becky said.
While Jessica does play basketball on a traveling club team — last week she traveled to a tourney in Las Vegas before flying to Sacramento to be at the State Fair today — much of the siblings’ time is spent with each other.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time, I’d say, we get along,” Ashley said.
That made Jessica look toward brother Wyatt and add: “We get along with him 95 percent of the time.”
To get an animal ready for the fair requires patience. Simply cleaning one animal can take 45 minutes. So while the sisters rinse, soap and blow dry the cattle, they listen to their iPods, featuring music by hard rockers like AC/DC, Metallica and Shinedown.
On this day, though, top 40 music is playing on a dusty stereo in the barn, as several cattle await their baths. One of them, a cow named Patience, is getting blow dried.
“These things are extra pampered, I’ll tell you that,” said Joel, a member of the Mid-State Fair’s Livestock Committee.
At the fair, the cows will be judged on many things, including their size, appearance and weight. But the Judges also think it’s important to have a clean animal that is well-behaved.
Even with months of preparation — the siblings still work the cattle even during the school year, just not as much — the contests don’t always go their way. But, Joel said, whether you win or lose, there are lessons learned: Either that hard work pays off or that life isn’t always fair.
“It’s a great life teacher,” he said. “You can still work real hard, and it still sometimes doesn’t go your way.”