CERRO GORDO – You might say Sierra Day's passion for cattle was born and bred into her.
Her mom, the former Cheryl Allen, grew up on a grain and livestock farm near Petersburg and developed a natural affinity for raising and showing beef cattle.
“I've always been told I inherited it from a grandpa I never knew,” Cheryl Day said.
But no matter whence it came, Sierra's first love has led her to unexpected heights, even before she heads to Lake Land College this month to study animal science.
The 18-year-old was one of just two Illinois students chosen in for the inaugural class of U.S. Presidential Scholars in Career and Technical Education, the same month she graduated from Cerro Gordo High School with a perfect grade point average.
The honor, along with being among four Illinois students chosen as 2016 Presidential Scholars, garnered her an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in June for a medallion presentation.
The Presidential Scholars program was established in 1964 to honor the country's most outstanding graduating seniors.
It was changed in 1979 to give special recognition to students with exceptional talent in the visual, creative and performing arts and yet again this year to recognize up to 20 students for their accomplishments in career and technical education.
Marcy Bialeschki, Sierra's guidance counselor; and Sid Krople, her ag teacher, say they've never known another student like Sierra.
“ 'Mature' doesn't seem like a strong enough word,” Bialeschki said. “She's been involved in the family farm from a young age and seems to thrive on it.”
Krople, whose first year of teaching was spent at Cerro Gordo, said Sierra was her “right-hand man” leading the school's FFA activities. “She's an extremely hard worker, but she was also good at allowing others a chance to speak and helping them along the way,” she said.
Cheryl and her husband, Bement native Ronald “Mike” Day, started their farming operation just inside the Macon County line on the northwest edge of Cerro Gordo 20 years ago. Sierra came along a couple of years later, and her brother Chayton, 12, six years after that.
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Mike remembers hanging a swing in the barn where he and his wife worked cattle so Sierra could watch.
She has been active in the Long Creek Critters 4H Club since she was 5, and she and her brother have been responsible for the family's 20-head Angus operation for the past six years.
“The majority of (the animals) are mine,” Sierra said. “I'm really quiet, and obviously they can't talk to me, so we get along pretty well. Being out there, playing with the calves has always come naturally to me.”
She shows heifers, which about age 2 become cows producing yet another crop of potential show heifers. She also shows calves.
“Ideally, the body is deep and long, not too fat but not too thin,” Sierra said. “The name of the game is how much and the quality of the beef they would produce.”
Their ability to follow a lead and to remain calm are also important, behaviors she encourages in potential show animals.
They get fed first, washed so their hair lays right, accustomed to a halter and worked with. The heifers currently getting the royal treatment from Sierra are named Queenie and Victoria.
Then it's time to call the cows, eight former show heifers, in from the pasture to eat. Most have recently weaned calves, and Sierra hopes all are pregnant.
Each animal has a name, but it's gotten easier as their mistress has gotten older to sell cows when they're past their prime.
“We don't really show steers, so we don't get as attached,” Sierra said. “Although our steers are pretty spoiled for freezer beef.”
She estimates she spends at least six hours a day with her cattle when she's in school and 12 to 14 when she's not.
Sierra plans to transfer from Lake Land to Iowa State University in Ames, where she hope to focus her studies on ruminant nutrition. “I think I want to go into research,” she said.