Sisters Grace McCrum, right, and Lila McCrum collected some serious hardware at this year's Northern Maine Fair with their respective baby beef club steers. This was Grace McCrum's final year as a member of the 4-H club.

There were a few tears around the McCrum kitchen table Thursday afternoon.

The previous day, sisters Grace, 18, and Lila McCrum, 16, said goodbye to their two prize-winning steers as the two baby beef were taken away after being sold at auction during the Northern Maine Fair.

And while the departure of the steers Admiral and Sugar Bear were bittersweet, the sisters and their mother Nichole McCrum found themselves wiping tears of shared pride and sadness at the end of an era on the farm.

After five years as an active member of the Aroostook Valley 4-H Baby Beef Club, this was Grace McCrum’s last fair as a club member. Admiral was her last competitive steer.

It was a very good year

Admiral arrived on the family’s Washburn farm last October as an 800-pound hereford bull calf, along with Lila McCrum’s hereford cross bull Sugar Bear, who also weighed in close to 800 pounds when he arrived.

Eight months later, Admiral’s official live weight tipped the scales at 1,499-pounds.

“The scale kept moving from 1,499 to 1,502 pounds,” Grace McCrum said with a laugh. “I was really hoping they’d put him at 1,500 pounds.”

Still, Admiral’s final weight and appearance was enough to earn him a first place ribbon in the senior category at the fair.

As happy as Grace McCrum was with Admiral’s finish, she was especially happy and proud of her younger sister Lila McCrum who took Grand Champion with Sugar Bear at the fair.

“Admiral was the heaviest steer at the fair,” Grace McCrum said. “Sugar was the second heaviest [and] weighed 1,417 pounds.”

In addition to medals and trophies, the work the McCrum sisters put into raising the steers also earned cold, hard cash with both bringing top dollar at the auction.

“I was hoping to get $2.70 a pound,” Grace McCrum said. “But the bidding started high and went higher, and Admiral sold for $3.40 a pound.”

Sugar Bear’s starting bid was also high, and in the end he sold for $3.55 a pound.

“The auction was amazing,” Nichole McCrum said. “Everyone got $3 a pound or more for their steers, and that is a really great price.”

In addition to helping defray the costs of buying and raising the animals, Nichole McCrum said the high sale prices are validation of the work that goes into raising an animal for food.

“These kids really put in their best work,” she said. “Everyone said it was the best year ever for steers.”

Grace McCrum plans to use her steer money to help pay for her first year attending the University of Maine at Presque Isle this fall.

Memories and experience to last

Looking back at her five years raising baby beef, Grace McCrum — who aged-out of the 4-H program this year when she turned 18 — said she has memories to last a lifetime.

“I think of all the good times with the other [4-H] members,” she said. “I loved raising the steers, visiting the buyers and even the nervousness of fair week.”

The girls’ mom Nichole McCrum is co-president of the Aroostook Valley 4-H Baby Beef Club, and said the participating teaches the youngsters work ethic, responsibility and even economics.

“I’m just so proud of them both and so emotional with Grace being done,” Nichole McCrum said, taking a second to wipe her eyes. “Grace has done such an amazing job over the years, and it’s hard to believe she is done.”

Watching their mother, the sisters began to tear up.

“Now you have us crying,” Lila McCrum said, wiping her eyes as her sister grabbed her own tissue.

Of course, just because she’s aged out of 4H and will not again raise a steer as part of the club, does not mean Grace McCrum will never be part of the baby beef action again.

“I [will] be an ‘independent’ 4Her one more year,” she said. “I can [as an independent member] help the younger members with their steers and still be a part of it. I can help Lila and Sam.”

At 16, Lila McCrum has two more years left in the club, and next year their 12-year-old brother Sam will purchase, raise and enter his first baby beef steer. And Grace McCrum will certainly add her expert opinions as her younger siblings look for their upcoming year’s steers.

“Cow shopping is the best part,” Lila McCrum said with a grin. “It’s like shopping [for] and getting a new dress.”

A family affair

That spirit of cooperation among the McCrum siblings is typical in the McCrum family, according to Lila McCrum.

The eldest sister Mackenzie McCrum, 20, aged out of 4H two years ago but still jumped in to help out with Admiral and Sugar Bear this past year.

“Yeah, we were able to get some extra sleep some mornings this winter,” Lila McCrum said. “Mackenzie was really involved and helped out a lot.”

Because the work and expense involved, raising a competition baby beef is not for everyone, Nichole McCrum said.

“There is the cost of buying the steer and then feeding it all winter,” she said. “That can be an expense, especially if it’s the first year and you don’t have the income from the previous year’s steer to work off of.”

Steer calves cost around $900 and raising them can run up to $2,500 for the season.

There is no getting around the work involved.

“You have to be committed 100 percent,” Grace McCrum said. “If you are not, it shows in the steer that you have not put in the work.”

Steers that are not given the attention and care, she said, will not post impressive weights and will lack the healthy, robust glow of a well-tended beef animal.

And while it may be a bit quieter in the McCrum barn now that Admiral and Sugar Bear are gone, the structure is not completely empty.

One stall houses Buttercup, a Highland cow heifer raised by Sam McCrum this past year and which took first place among the HIghland cattle at the recent fair. This coming season he will raise his first baby beef steer.

In another stall are piglets Thelma Lou, Barney and Juanita, the three newest members of the McCrum farm.

“Mackenzie came home from the fair with three pigs,” Grace McCrum said. “They were leftover from the pig scramble, and she wanted them to have a home.”

The pig scramble is a popular children’s event at the fair during which up to 30 piglets are released in a large, enclosed area and must be recaptured. The three piglets are destined for slaughter later in the year, but for now play happily in the barn with a red ball purchased by Mackenzie McCrum.

But with the larger steers gone, the work is not quite yet done.

“The barn really needs a thorough wash down and clean out,” Grace McCrum said. “I know what we are doing on Saturday.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.