Shuke family online pig showman

Dan Shike films his children for online pig showman competitions. The family — in top photo, Hunter, Olivia, Jennifer, Harper and Dan — raises show pigs on their farm in Champaign County, Ill.

Pigs play a big role in the lives of the Shike family, but they’re not pork producers.

Dan is a faculty member in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Illinois,

Jennifer is the editor of Farm Journal’s PORK magazine, and all three of their children, ages 6 to 14, raise show pigs on their farm near Sadorus in Champaign County, Illinois.

Each is impacted by what the coronavirus pandemic has done to the pig industry and life in general.

The children adapted to home schooling and moved the show ring with their pigs to the virtual show world. When Olivia, 14, and Hunter, 12, get ready for a virtual show, it almost feels like being in the ring.

“It’s not the same as stepping into an actual show ring, but we have excitement and adrenaline getting ready for and watching the virtual shows,” Olivia said.

Their father Dan, who grew up showing livestock in western Illinois, coached the University of Illinois livestock judging team for 11 years and judges pig and cattle shows around the country.

Jennifer, who grew up on a small livestock farm in southeast Iowa, was also active in 4-H and FFA. After college, she went to work for the National Swine Registry and started the National Junior Swine Association (NJSA).

For the Shike family, not all the pandemic changes have been bad. They have enjoyed the extra time as a family out in the barn instead of rushing to many activities after school. It has also allowed them more time to train their pigs.

“Virtual shows are different, but you adjust,” Olivia said.

Especially at the beginning of the season, the virtual shows included more competitors from longer distances than exhibitors experience at the county or regional level, Dan said. It wasn’t unusual for 1,200 to 1,500 pigs from as many as 38 states to compete. That can be a big change for young people who would normally start competing at a county fair, he said.

The shows in some states, including Arizona and California, are usually held in May with pig size geared to those dates. Without virtual shows, some pigs and competitors wouldn’t get to compete at all this year as the pigs would be too big, he said.

Hunter has had good results with the barrows and gilts he has shown this year, even with the tough competition. He says his dad has helped by adjusting target dates to have animals ready for certain competitions. They show Duroc, Berkshire, Chester White, Hampshire, Landrace, Spot and crossbreds throughout the season.

Olivia likes the feedback from judges, which may be more extensive in virtual shows, and likes being able to review videos.

“It makes you a better evaluator,” she said.

The judges are doing a great job, her dad said. They often give new and inexperienced youth extra advice they can use, he said.

Exhibitors can win virtual banners to share on social media and prize money, so there are still tangible results. Still, virtual shows don’t replace the live show, Dan said.

“We absolutely want to get back to a live venue,” he said.

“A live show is a different experience,” said Olivia, who misses being with her friends in person.

There is hope shows held in late summer and fall, including the Illinois State Fair, will take place, but they may look very different, Dan said. In some cases, fairs will not hold a midway, but be exclusively a livestock show, he said.

“It has been a roller coaster of ‘yes’ and ‘no’” as shows have been changed, postponed or canceled, he said.

Harper, 6, was looking forward to getting to show more this year. She said she is looking forward to showing with friends in a real show ring.

“I’m grateful for the virtual shows. We haven’t been bored,” Jennifer said. “It keeps their minds busy and productive.”

The children have made other adjustments as well. Olivia recently competed in an FFA public speaking contest virtually.

“It teaches kids to be flexible,” her mom said. “Everyone has to find a new normal.”

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.