FARMINGTON — Justin Shelton, a 14-year-old ranch kid from La Plata, was helping Lee Hall, also 14 and from La Plata, get Lee's steer Smokey ready for judging in Class VI of the San Juan County Fair Beef Show on Thursday.

Each had a brush and a spray can of adhesive and was treating Smokey like a beauty queen, fluffing his leg hair just so.

"We're getting his hair to stand up to get more form to his legs," Shelton said.

Shaking the spray can, he added, "It's just pretty much hair spray for cows."

Hall had spent months raising Smokey.

"I like how you get to learn more about different types of animals and how to take care of them," he said. "Also, it shows that you can train just about any type of animal as long as you put your time in."

The beef show drew entries for 27 steers and three heifers, a disappointing field compared to previous years.

"Our numbers are down," said Bob Echols, a local rancher who helped run the contest. "It's primarily due to the economy and the price of feed."

The competitors begin raising their cattle in late fall. They prepare them for nearly a year before the beef show.

"Steers are an expensive project, and they're a year-round project," Echols said.

In the arena, teenagers led around their steers. The kids had by now learned to keep them under control, an important consideration as the steers weigh close to 1,400 pounds and some of the youths come in at less than 100 pounds. The competitors used "show sticks" to position the steers and rub their bellies to keep them calm.

Katelin Spradley, 15, said she was nervous as she led around a steer by the name of Jolly Rancher. It was her first time raising a steer, and she finished in fourth place in the Class IV division (the steers are classified by height at their hips).

"Hopefully, next year will be a little bit better," said Spradley, a Bloomfield High sophomore.

Jolly Rancher will be auctioned off Saturday along with his peers. Spradley said she plans to put the money toward college.

That's also what John Dockter did after about 10 years raising livestock for the fair. Dockter, now a junior at the University of New Mexico studying international business, "saved a lot of money for college" through raising animals, said his father, Larry.

"It keeps them busy through the summer," said Larry Dockter, from Blanco. "It's having to see through it and work with it each day. It teaches them responsibility. If you work hard, the rewards are there."

Chuck Slothower covers business for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and cslothower@daily-times.com. Follow him @Dtchuck on Twitter.