SLO County students prep their animals for the Santa Barbara County Fair

Matthew O'Henley, center, with the Nipomo FFA, preps his goat, Kemosabe, for showing at the Santa Barbara County Fair on Tuesday.
Matthew O'Henley, center, with the Nipomo FFA, preps his goat, Kemosabe, for showing at the Santa Barbara County Fair on Tuesday. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The distinctive “baa” of lambs and goats echoed loudly throughout one of the livestock barns at the Santa Maria Fairpark on Tuesday morning — some of the bleats coming from inside the shiny red pens in the main barn enclosure, others from underneath the barn’s outdoor awnings as the animals’ human handlers brushed, trimmed and prepared them for the first day of competition at the Santa Barbara County Fair.

“They’re really nice, but they’ll eat everything they get close to,” warned Tehlor Berry, 18,  as she patted her 143-pound market lamb, Daisy, over the bars of one of the pens.

Even though the fair’s recreational activities don’t start until Wednesday, Berry and other FFA and 4-H club members from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties were on site as early as Sunday getting ready for the animal shows that were scheduled to begin Tuesday morning.

Berry was preparing Daisy to show later that night during the market lamb competition.

“I connect with the lambs because they are a lot easier than having to deal with swine or heifers. They connect with the owner a lot more, as you can tell,” she joked as Daisy stuck her head through the bars to nibble on Berry’s blue corduroy jacket.

The Santa Barbara County Fair officially runs Wednesday through Sunday, including rides, free concerts and the livestock competitions. Everything from rabbits and chickens to beef, swine and sheep is represented in the showmanship and market auction competitions.

Preparing the animals for the fair is a time-consuming, usually monthslong commitment, the students said.

Matthew O’Henley, 16, said balancing his animal commitments with school and other activities can be difficult, but ultimately it’s worth the effort.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I play football, so it’s hard to balance the two. I have to miss a week here and there and then show up for practice when I can. And during school, you have to just put in the time. But don’t ever forget about your animals.”

O’Henley, a junior with the Nipomo High School FFA chapter, will show a market goat and a replacement heifer this week. The goat was named Kemosabe to go along with his brother’s goat, Tonto, and the heifer was named Olive at the request of a friend’s mom, he said.

On Tuesday morning, O’Henley prepped Kemosabe by trimming up the fur on the goat’s legs, brushing him down and even feeding him more alfalfa to help fill him out before taking him to be shown with the other market goats.

“You have to have fun and don’t be lazy about it,” O’Henley said of raising the animals. “Really put in time and effort. If you don’t put in time and effort, you won’t do well.”

For many of the students, showing and prepping the animals is just a small part of the larger fair experience, however.

“You enjoy spending a lot of time with the people around you,” Berry said, noting that she looks forward to returning to the fair each year. “We’re like a giant family. We hang out together and talk and laugh and have great memories.”