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Naturally, show piggers (a clumsy locution, but "pig showers" is unacceptable) are extremely interested in what Grebner is looking for. Different judges value different traits in different balance. Some favor a more heavily muscled hog. Others favor a more symmetrical balance. In a world where a perception of the squareness of a hog's back and how visibly the chime bone elevates under a hog's shoulder-hide when it walks can mean the difference between early death at a loss and postponed death and the continued hope of gain, God is in the details.
When Grebner judges a particular hog better than all other hogs, smart show-pig producers will start breeding hogs as similar to the champion as they can make them, thus all pigs will continue to converge in type according to the preferences of the meat industry and its representatives.
Antique photos of champion pigs show overstuffed balloon-shaped sausages with tiny, little legs -- the exemplary pig in an age that held lard the highest contribution of the species. Today, pork is marketed to nominally health-conscious consumers as a lean white meat, and pigs have been adjusted accordingly. Adult market hogs bear strikingly little resemblance to the roly-poly image popularized by novelty coin-holders. They look like short cows.
On the phone, Grebner says, "Ultimately what I'm trying to pick is a hog that's ideal for all aspects, one that grows efficiently and is sound and correct in his design, but also and ultimately what is desirable and ideal for a consumer, which is a lean, heavy-muscled product. Just as important in a market animal situation is the cuttability value, and for that you look at the total amount of muscle spread or shape that an animal has, in specific areas like down their top, which is their loin edge, in layman's terms that's where the pork chop comes from, the pork loin. You look for the muscle expression and shape that they have through their rump, which happens to be where their ham comes from. And not only the total amount of muscle that they have, but also how lean they appear, because a hog tends to deposit fat along his loin edge, so as you're looking for muscle, you're also able to determine how much of his width is due to fat."
In the ring, Grebner stands and walks with his arms crossed, hands on opposing biceps, in a posture that seems designed to minimize effort as he pivots his forearms from the elbow toward one chute or another for three straight days.
Over at one side of the show ring, sitting on top of the railing, brother and sister Mica and Devni Mark, who appear to be aged about eight and 11 respectively, make a game out of preguessing Grebner's calls.
They seem to be calling about 75 percent correct, but this last call, what strikes Mica as a sure "in," gets the nay from Grebner.
"Oh, man," says Mica. "That's hard."
The Mark kids are down from Earth, Texas, which is about 65 miles north of Lubbock. Devni's heavyweight Chester has already been loaded on the meat truck, and Mica isn't showing this year. An older sister, Megan, is up soon with a heavyweight Hampshire, the same classification in which Kody Ellis is competing, but the Mark kids hold no illusions.
"She won't win," says Devni. "Our hogs are too fat. He doesn't like the fat ones."
"Sometimes," says Mica, "it's a long drive for nothing."
Donnis and JoLynn and Jodi Ellis, along with Kody's grandparents, have muscled their way onto the bleachers. The horizontal red, white and blue stripes of Kody's shirt are visible in line as he awaits his turn in the ring. The hog in front of Kody gets a good, long look, maybe 15 seconds, and is dispatched to the meat truck.
"The longer he looks," someone says, "the less he likes 'em."
Kody steers his 254-pound Hamp named Robin (litter-mate to Batman) into the circle, and Grebner wastes no more than three seconds before pointing Robin toward the "Houston Bound" chute.
Jodi voices the mantra of pig sift survivors everywhere: "He made it."
There's a localized cheer and a sigh of relief. Clearly it didn't take Grebner long to recognize a good hog. That's a good sign. Still, this is only Friday, the sift, when Grebner sends the obvious noncontenders on their way. Still to come is Saturday's prejudge, when Grebner will make his final cuts down to the allotted number of Hampshires that will go to Houston. Kody and Robin have made it through round one, but round two is the round that matters.
Friday night the Ellis family and friends gather beneath the canopies of their two flanking travel trailers and grill dinner on a stainless-steel barbecue pit. The Ellises eat corn on the cob, beans and chicken.
Saturday morning's sun rises on a depleted congregation. Thousands of animals have been sifted, sending their owners back home to prepare new hogs for the Junior Market Barrow Show in San Angelo on March 11 and 12. All the major, or terminal, shows in Texas are lumped together in late winter, first San Antonio, then Fort Worth, then Houston and finally San Angelo. Houston is far and away the largest, but many families will compete in all four, hoping one place will offset three disappointments and knowing all the while that four failures build more character than one.
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