JACKSON -- They may have stood eye to eye, but some rather young junior showmen handled their massive Columbia sheep with ease during the National Columbia Junior Sheep Show at the Jackson County Fairgrounds Thursday afternoon.
The annual show and sale is celebrating its 62nd anniversary and first-ever appearance in Minnesota this week. Columbia sheep producers from about 25 states are represented at the event, with exhibitors traveling from as far away as California in the west to Ohio in the east.
"This is the biggest (exhibitor list) we've had in a few years," said Gene Holmquist, president of the Upper Midwest Columbia Sheep Association and a rural Okabena sheep producer. "It seems if (the show and sale) is centrally located, it helps."
Roughly 100 sheep were paraded through the show arena during Thursday's junior show, and there will be twice as many in the ring today for the official National Columbia Sheep Show. On Saturday, all of the animals will be sold to the highest bidder. The public is invited to attend both the show and sale.
The national show and sale has been two years in the making for the nearly 20 members of the Upper Midwest Columbia Sheep Association (UMCSA), which hosts the event. The group is composed of sheep producers from South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. While this is the first time the national show has been in Minnesota, UMCSA earned the bid to host it in 1991, opting to conduct the event in Sioux Falls, S.D.
As for choosing Jackson in 2006, show and sale manager Charles Worm said members of the Jackson County Fair Board wanted to "host something of this caliber" to test the fairground's trio of livestock barns completed three years ago.
"We've been very fortunate with the weather -- especially for traveling -- you can't beat it," Worm said.
People and their sheep began arriving as early as Monday evening to get their pens -- and their animals -- ready for the show.
For old-timers Paul Uphoff of Graymont, Ill., and Harold Osborne, of Wimbledon, N.D., the national show is a time to reunite with friends and talk about sheep -- Columbia sheep in particular. Both will be showing animals today.
"I'm one of the older ones here," Osborne boasted.
The remark led to some good-natured teasing from his son and Uphoff. Osborne attended the first and second national Columbia shows, both of which were in Minot, N.D., and has been to a number of them in the years that followed.
"The breed wasn't established 'til the '30s," said Uphoff, one of few Columbia sheep growers in his area of Illinois.
He said attending the national show and sale has helped boost the genetics in his own herd and helped him meet fellow Columbia growers nationwide.
"I started raising Columbia seriously in the late '60s," Uphoff said of his flock, which before then consisted of a mixture of commercial and Columbia sheep. "I went to a show and found out how miserable my sheep were and decided to get better or get out."
The national show and sale lures several young Columbia growers looking for improved genetics and information from the more experienced folk.
Fourteen-year-old Bud Phelps, of Malta, Ill., was taking part in his second national Columbia junior show Thursday afternoon. He and his aunt spent 7½ hours on the road to get to Jackson earlier this week.
Phelps showed a spring ewe lamb on Thursday, placing eighth of nine animals in the show ring.
"She was real small," Phelps said of his sheep. "She needs to grow."
During the summer, Phelps shows sheep at two county fairs in Illinois and has them as a 4-H project.
"It's fun to work with them and get them real tame," he said.
The Columbia is known as a dual-purpose sheep breed, heralded both for its quality wool and meat production.
"They're called the white giants," Osborne said, adding that the trend for Columbia has been to create a long-legged, long-bodied animal.
Some of the older producers like Osborne, however, still like the earlier breed typing -- big and broad. Perhaps in time, the breed typing will revert back to the broader animal, he added.
Next year's National Columbia Sheep Show and Sale will be in Douglas, Wyo. Last year, it was conducted near Spanish Fork, Utah.