DENVER | Last January, 12-year-old Wyatt Sandell caught a calf, a friend and probably a career.
This week, he walked away from the National Western Stock Show with only the determination to make ranching his life.
It was a cold winter day when Wyatt joined dozens of other boys and girls to storm into the stadium arena at the Denver Coliseum in hopes of snagging a calf in the annual Catch-A-Calf event.
The decades-old program lets kids catch calves in often hilarious chaos on the stadium floor, and keep them for a year to raise. The following January, they bring the yearlings back for competition and sale.
Sponsors buy the calves and give the kids a shot at being a rancher.
“It gives the kids an opportunity to raise a steer, when it wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” said Clancy Anderson, the Livestock Coordinator for the National Western Stock Show.
The child ranchers learn far more than the science of animal ranching. More than anything, it’s about networking, patience, diligence and communication, officials said.
“The networking is indispensable,” said Ben Duke, the head of the Catch-A-Calf committee for the NWSS. He was Wyatt’s sponsor. “It’s an incredible educational opportunity… and is the most iconic program the National Western Stock Show offers.”
Wyatt and his family think so, too.
“He’d rather be working with livestock than playing video games,” said Brittany Sandell, Wyatt’s mother. It says a lot when a teen like Wyatt is not just willing but anxious to traipse out into the cold to care for a stubborn calf than hit the couch and the controller for a few hours.
Red Rock was a finicky calf, with particular eating habits. Wyatt’s favorite bull rider, Lane Frost, rode an infamous bull named Red Rock, and that became his calf’s name.
Red Rock never managed to put on the weight that Wyatt and his mom Brittany had hoped he would.
The average weight of the calves when show-time rolled around was 1,320 pounds. Red Rock’s final weight was 1,082 pounds.
Wyatt is no greenhorn at taking care of animals. He’s a fifth-generation rancher. He’s raised sheep and pigs for show and sale and has a few horses of his own, but nothing is a given in this industry.
Feeding a calf that has challenging eating habits can be a task in and of itself, and some will go as far to prepare gourmet-style meals to get their calves to eat.
“Stuff the chef at the Broadmoor doesn’t even make,” Duke joked.
A year of feeding, grooming, talking and worrying brought the duo back to the stock show for the final return this week.
It was time for weigh in.
Brittany, visibly frustrated, said, “It’s bad. The long and the short is that it’s bad. You put that much time, money and effort into raising the calf, and to get that kind of return is not good.”
Wyatt will sell his calf for about $1.20 a pound. His mom said they invested about $3,000 into raising Red Rock on food, equipment and transport. It was discouraging but he wasn’t totally discouraged.
The hardest part comes after settling up.
The kids lead their calves out of the ring and into the stock yards, almost in a march, where they say their goodbyes.
Wyatt led Red Rock into a pen in the stock yards and stood there with his calf.
Surrounded by others in the competition, it could have just as easily been only them in that crowded pen. A quiet moment between two friends.
Wyatt left the pen and went straight to his mom, briefly crying on her shoulder.
Despite the difficult goodbye, Wyatt, now 13, said that after raising the calf, he knows what he wants to do for a living.
“I want to sell cattle,” Wyatt said.