By: Leighton Chachere
“Kylee Gaston named Overall Supreme Champion Heifer at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with her Limousin female.” These words were spoken over the microphone and written across social media and news platforms just one week before Gaston’s home was threatened by one of the most destructive wildfires Texas has seen in over a decade.
Gaston, a seventh grade student from Eastland, Texas, enjoys showing cattle, playing the trombone in her school band and baking. She and DL Hosanna 526H, better known as Hershey, were a match meant to be.
Hershey is a Riverstone Charmed x TASF Crown Royal 960C ET heifer bred by Kylie’s dad, Jason Gaston.
“Whenever my Dad was at Stower’s, he bred the mating and later (Jason) Lyman sold the embryos to Davis Limousin,” said Gaston. “As soon as Hershey hit the ground, Brad (Davis) called my dad to come look at her.”
According to Gaston, she didn’t think Hershey looked great when she was born, but her dad purchased her from Davis Limousin as soon as she was weaned because he believed so strongly in the mating’s genetics.
The walk to supreme champion
In late 2020 and early 2021, Gaston and Hershey traveled to jackpots learning how to work together, in and out of the show ring. The time paid off for the pair and in the 2021 Texas majors season, the duo reserved their division at both San Antonio and Houston.
Over the summer, Hershey stayed home with the exception of a few jackpots to try and get bred, skipping out on the state Limousin show and Jr. Nationals.
In January 2022, the majors season started for Gaston and Hershey with the Cattleman’s Congress in Oklahoma City, where they reserved the Limousin breed. While Hershey was not shown at Ft. Worth, her and Gaston were recognized as the 2021 Reserve Champion Limousin Heifer of the Year during the Lone Star Shoot-Out Show.
In February, they traveled to San Antonio where Hershey was named Reserve Limousin Champion. All of these led up to the granddaddy of them all for the Gaston’s - Houston.
“My dad had been telling everyone that we were just looking forward to Houston,” said Gaston. “Our big goal was to win Houston.”
On March 12, the final day of the 2022 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo breeding heifer show, the Limousin breed entered the ring.
“My Dad couldn’t even watch our class because the judge was looking at her hooves, her utter, looking at everything,” said Gaston. “The judge later said that when my class walked in, the calf two in front of me walked in, and he said ‘that’s the class winner,’ then Tucker walked in in front of me and he said ‘oh, we’ve got another class winner,’ then I walked in and he was like ‘oh boy, we’ve got another class winner’.”
Gaston ultimately won the class, her division, Champion Limousin and Champion Exotic Female. All followed by Tucker Parkinson as second in class, reserve division, Reserve Champion Limousin and Reserve Exotic Female from the exact same class.
“When we won our breed, I just thought ‘this is amazing, I didn’t really think we’d get this far,’” said Gaston. “Then we win the exotic drive and I just start crying.”
Judges Chris Mullinix, Dr. Chris Cassady and Brady Jensen selected the division and supreme champions in Houston that day.
“We go back over for the supreme drive and they look through the cattle and talk a bunch,” said Gaston. “Then they walked over to my heifer and one of the judges asked the other judge ‘which heifer are we choosing and when,’ and the other judge pointed at my heifer and said ‘this one’ and I just started crying.”
Gaston said her favorite part about winning Supreme Champion that day was getting dinner after the win.
“Because I got to choose where we ate, so I got me a delicious steak, mashed potatoes and green beans at Saltgrass,” said Gaston. “Once I was done, I just fell asleep at the table because I woke up at four, but it was worth it for sure.”
Days later, Gaston returned to Houston with her Hereford steer, where she made the sale.
The wildfires raging
On March 17, just days after Gaston returned from the Houston steer show, the Eastland Complex ignited. Before complete containment, the wildfire would burn 54,513 acres.
“We come back home and there’s a fire everywhere around us,” said Gaston. “My dad called my mom and said ‘get Hershey in the barn, that’s all I care about, she’s too expensive to die’.”
Gaston’s instinct was right. According to Texas A&M AgriLife, the Texas wildfires that raged in the Eastland Complex, parts of the Panhandle and Coryell County in the spring of 2022 resulted in $23.1 million in agricultural loss estimates - including more than 400 livestock deaths.
Several structures on the property were lost, including a hay barn, dozens of wells and a lot of cattle. Thankfully the sale barn was saved, though it was not in the clear the entire time.
“About half way through the first fire, a second fire comes and it’s about to join with the other fire,” said Gaston. “So it’s coming from the south and the west and it’s just blowing straight at the sale barn.”
The wildfire was deemed a complex because it was multiple fires being handled as one. A complex fire is when two or more individual wildfires are located in the same general area and assigned to a single incident commander or unified command, or when firefighters join with local officials to manage the incident.
According to Texas A&M Forest Service, the Eastland Complex included seven wildfires: the Walling, Wheat Field, Kidd, Oak Mott, Blowing Basin, Mangum and Cedar Mountain wildfires.
“I knew a little bit about wildfires before this because of all the fires that were happening in California,” said Gaston. “But, I didn’t know much, I just knew that it’s pretty hard to stop them.”
Wildfires are often hard to stop, but this was specifically the case for the Eastland Complex. After ignition, the wildfire became significantly worse due to a Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak (SPWO) event. SPWO events have caused some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in Texas history because much like a hurricane or tornado, they cannot be stopped.
Luckily for Gaston and Hershey, the show barn remained untouched from the fire.
“We just keep watering everywhere around the show barn so it wouldn’t burn,” said Gaston. “We think the only way the show barn didn’t burn is because we have two pivots around it, so that was really, really helpful.”
The Eastland Complex burned for weeks before complete containment and became just the beginning of what would be a very long wildfire season for the state of Texas due to hot and dry conditions.
For Gaston, she feels a lot more prepared for wildfires and intense situations now.
“Definitely a lot more prepared, because just like my Dad said ‘never get panicked’,” said Gaston.
Since the chaos of winning Supreme Champion and surviving a wildfire, Hershey has been doing quite well, slowly acclimating to pasture cow life. She’s also since calved a bull that Gaston has named Kevin.
“We named him Kevin McCalister,” said Gaston. “He’s very smart in Home Alone and because Hershey is an amazing escape artist.”
Gaston’s run with Hershey is long from over as she plans to show her offspring in the years to come. And though they have a ways to go, she is thankful for the lessons Hershey has taught her.
“She taught me that not all cows are going to be like my first heifer,” said Gaston. “Because she was very stubborn and a little ornery too. She also taught me patience and how to be a better showman.”