WEST VALLEY – In January, Bailey Lake had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow blanketing the valley.
Then, 13-year-old Bailey pulled on her boots and got to work.
Everywhere that Bailey went, the lamb was sure to go, because the teenager spent the next nine months hand-rearing the small, rambunctious, bleating creature. It was nine months of 6:30 a.m. wakeups regardless of the day of the week, nine months of feeding twice a day, of training in a ring, of growing and shearing and growing again.
Now Bailey’s little lamb is not so little, looking pleasantly plump and weighing in at about 150 pounds. His ear tag reads 539 but his name is AJ, short for Average Joe, though he’s anything but: AJ is aiming to be the top lamb at the Northwest Montana Fair, and if Bailey’s record is any indication, his chances are better than good.
Last week during a rare August downpour, Bailey and her parents, Kevin and Inga Lake, spent time prepping lambs to show at the upcoming Northwest Montana Fair, which runs Aug. 17-21, with the livestock showings beginning a day early on Aug. 16. Bailey won grand market champion awards at last year’s fair, and intends on making another dominating showing.
AJ the Suffolk-Hampshire lamb stood still on a grooming pedestal, his freshly shorn coat now a short, soft pelt of fleece. Bailey and her dad sprayed his fine coat with a solution to help him recover the natural oils removed through shearing.
“This will be my sixth lamb that I’ll take to the fair,” Bailey said.
She started her career with local 4H after her older sister got involved with the pig-raising program. Neither of her parents came from an agricultural background, so they learned with their daughters.
When she was younger, Bailey was smaller and feared the pigs and their squeals. The then-8-year-old girl decided she would show less-fearsome lambs and won a blue ribbon in her competition. Her goal at the time, Bailey said, was not to lose the lamb in the ring while showing for the judges.
The lambs are judged on a variety of characteristics, from coat to musculature to structure. The 4H kids handling the animals are also judged, earning points for control and presence.
Already this year, Bailey has traveled to several out-of-state competitions to bolster her banner year at Montana events. In Spokane, she and her lamb won market and showman awards; in Riverton, Wyoming, she won champion intermediate showman. Filer, Idaho saw her win third overall and win intermediate showman, and Bailey was the class winner at the Pacific International Livestock Show in Prineville, Oregon.
In Montana, her lambs earned champion awards in the market category at the state fair, along with fifth place overall and champion junior showman. She won Reserve Champion and the market lamb category at the Montana Royal Livestock Show in Kalispell.
“It’s incredible,” her dad Kevin said. “That’s why we do it. She puts in a tremendous amount of effort.”
The two barn structures on the family’s West Valley property were built for the lambs, especially after Bailey branched out and started breeding her own.
“I think we all fell in love with the sheep project,” Inga said. “It’s the best part of the day.”
She has a couple of ewes that she bred in her fields, and she’s expecting a new ram from Oklahoma.
The winning lambs, though – AJ and another stocky male named Dre – came from Boatman Club Lambs in Oregon. The Lake family has worked closely with the owners there; Bailey is on the Boatman show team, and the Boatmans came to the Flathead to put on a showmanship clinic for local 4H and Future Farmers of America kids.
If they’re going to support her dreams in and out of state, they’re going to bring back the knowledge she’s earned there and share it here, Inga said.
Bailey is involved through the whole process with her lambs, from stroking their 12-pound baby bodies gently right after birth to the fair and to the meat-processing plant for their final journey.
Taking that last trip with the lambs after they’re purchased at auction was important for their daughter, Inga said, because it instills in her the true nature of this cyclical life.
“She understands the process and it’s part of the promotion of agriculture,” Inga said, watching her daughter straighten the legs on her standing lamb. “But it’s still hard, because she spends hours a day with them.”
Her winning market lambs are auctioned and typically sell for prices up to $7 a pound. The Northwest Montana Fair usually brings out the best prices.
“Our community has the most amazing sale and the most generous, supportive buyers,” Inga said.
Any money Bailey earns either goes back into her burgeoning sheep collective or into a savings account for college.
As a teenager, Bailey is tall and quiet, quick to smile, and loving but firm with her fleecy charges. In the ring, the handlers lead the lambs and hold the lambs’ heads still to strike the show pose.
Dre, who ranks as her favorite lamb at the moment, begrudgingly struck said pose last week, though he snorted his displeasure into Bailey’s chest. She merely laughed, then readjusted.
“It is an animal,” she said, getting Dre in line. “And no matter how much you work with them, you never really know what they’re going to do.”
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