The heart of agriculture: 4-H members make memories, connections at National Western Stock Show

Lexi Vrabec shows her sheep at the National Western Stock show Jan. 14.
4-H member Lexi Vrabec shows her sheep “Ironman” Jan. 14 in the showmanship competition on Colorado State University Day at the National Western Stock Show. Photo by John Eisele
Tyla Thomas holds the banner she won during the Western National Roundup 4-H Livestock Judging Contest.
Tyla Thomas holds the banner she won during the Western National Roundup 4-H Livestock Judging Contest. Photo by Nan Thomas

Every year, 4-H members like Lexi Vrabec and Tyla Thomas exhibit animals they have raised during the National Western Stock Show. At the stock show, their year-round hard work culminates in recognition, pride and being a part of something bigger. 

With more than 700,000 annual attendees, the NWSS means a lot of things to a lot of people, but what does it mean to these young newcomers to the agriculture industry? 

“It’s the heart of agriculture; it represents this industry,” said Vrabec, who is 14. She loves animals, enjoys being involved in agriculture and hopes to educate those who are unaware of its importance.  

“There is nothing greater than getting to show off our hard work – even if we don’t always win, being a part of this industry is the win,” Vrabec said. 

Thomas, 16, from the Sterling area, has been a 4-H member for nine years and showing cattle for just as long. She has presented cattle at the NWSS for three years but has attended the event with her parents for as long as she can remember.  

“To me, the National Western Stock Show is a lifelong tradition of cattle breeders coming from many different states to show and market their cattle, while making memories and connections,” said Thomas. “NWSS is a place where you can make memories with your family and other cattle breeders that help shape the future of young members like me.” 

Tyla Thomas judges during the Western National Roundup 4-H Livestock Judging Contest.
Tyla Thomas judges during the Western National Roundup 4-H Livestock Judging Contest. Photo by Legacy Livestock Imaging

Thomas said she enjoys walking through the trade show and yards to see the diverse cattle breeds and watching the different shows to learn more about livestock judging. 

This year brought some disappointment but also a new favorite stock show memory. Thomas’ heifer got sick before the event, so she was unable to bring it to the show, but her livestock judging team was selected to judge during the Western National Roundup 4-H Livestock Judging Contest, held in conjunction with the NWSS. Only one team is chosen per state, and Tyla’s team earned the opportunity by placing third in the state contest in June. 

“It was a very fun contest, and for us as a team to not only represent our county but also our state at a national contest was very impressive,” Thomas said. 

Sam Lowry, a state 4-H youth development specialist with CSU Extension, said 4-H youth learn myriad life skills through their project experiences, including responsibility, record keeping, teamwork and sportsmanship. 

“4-H youth who exhibit their livestock project animals at the National Western Stock Show are able to showcase the skills they have learned through their 4-H experiences and have the opportunity to be recognized in the show ring for their hard work and perseverance,” Lowry said. 

They also can network with other 4-H youth from around the country who share similar interests and meet industry representatives that may lead to future careers, he said. 

Life lessons and time together

Lexi Vrabec poses for a photo with her sheep in a livestock pen
Lexi Vrabec prepares her sheep “Ironman” for competition at the National Western Stock Show. Photo by John Eisele

Vrabec has participated in 4-H since she was five years old. This was her fourth year exhibiting at the NWSS. 

Her family lives in Colorado Springs, and they rent barn and pasture space that’s about a 10-minute drive from home. They make at least two trips a day to care for their animals, and more than that December through March during lambing season. Vrabec cares for 15 ewes, two rams, a breeding boer goat doe and two Nigerian dwarf dairy goats. 

The family spends most of their evenings, especially in the spring and summer, working together at the barn. Vrabec’s dad, Jonathan Vrabec, said it’s quality time that can’t be duplicated. 

“I wanted my kids to learn the responsibility and dedication it takes to raise and care for animals,” Vrabec said. “The animals are just vehicles we use right now for her to learn these things that later on in life she will use in whatever she chooses to do.” 

Vrabec takes pride in her animals and is invested in them from start to finish, from the breeding plan and birth to the time when they enter the breeding program and eventually the food chain.  

“My dedication to driving out to my barn more than once a day comes from my love of animals and showing,” she said. 

In addition to showing her animals, Vrabec’s favorite part of the stock show is seeing longtime friends and spending time with her family. It also has another deep-rooted meaning: crepes. 

“We have a tradition of getting crepes there even when we don’t go to show,” she said. “Every time I see or think of crepes, I always think of stock show.”