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Clint Banister, who raised this year’s grand champion 4-H lamb, held his lamb, a 172-pound Hampshire Suffolk cross named Vegas, as Bob Patacini found the animal’s 12th and 13th ribs. He then squirted the animal with vegetable oil and inspected the ribeye within with his ultrasound equipment on Sunday at the Western Montana Fair.

“Here you can see the wool, back fat and muscle,” said Patacini, as he pointed out the features on a monitor. “This one’s almost a 5. We want most of the lambs to be 3-plus,” he said of the yield grade for Banister’s lamb as he gave the boy a photograph of the ultrasound.

Ultrasound was new to the fair last year, but was optional for all animals. This year the ultrasound will allow the youth competing in 4-H to get as close as they can to a carcass evaluation, which has been available to those bringing steers and hogs to the fair for years, said Brooke Martin, with Blue Mountain 4-H.

“An ultrasound is the best thing short of slaughter,” said Banister, who has been been bringing lambs to the fair for eight years.

Only about one-sixth of the lambs sold by 4-H kids at the fair go directly to slaughter, said Clarence Wildeboer, co-superintendent of the fair’s sheep department. With so few going to a slaughterhouse it previously had been impossible to award for the cuts of meat their animal can provide.

David Brink, the Montana State University extension agent for Mineral County, said the images and data captured on Sunday will be sent to the Centralized Ultrasound Processing Lab in Iowa to get the official yield grade for each lamb.

4-H newcomer A.J. Sharkey had a successful year with his first lamb, Derick, who weighed 142 pounds.

“The ultrasound was really good,” Sharkey said. The ribeye, a black circle when shown on the monitor during the ultrasound, was the ideal size, Sharkey was told.

Sharkey raised Derick in his backyard on his family's 1-acre lot near Hellgate Elementary. 

"I asked the breeder, 'Can I just let this thing wander around in my backyard?'" said A.J's father, Rod Sharkey. The family built a shelter for the lamb with a dog kennel and a roof.

A.J. Sharkey said he’s learned a lot over the past few months with his lamb, which he’s had since May. Feeding is the key to a successful lamb, he learned. Lambs like to eat early in the morning or late in the evening, when it is cool. Protein is a key part of the lamb’s diet.

Sharkey was feeding his lamb feed with 18 percent protein, before switching over to 17 percent protein after his lamb hit the minimum market weight of 110 pounds.

Banister, also used feed strategically to keep Vegas lean. Banister judges the fat on his lambs with his hands, feeling for the ribs. Before feeding his lambs, he carefully weighed out the portions and separated the animals while they ate, ensuring they only ate what he’d planned out for them.

His 172-pound lamb went for $6 a pound, for a total of $1,032. 

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