For many years, the Junior Dairy Show at the Wisconsin State Fair has been proclaimed "the largest and most competitive junior dairy show in the world." I often wondered if this was a fact or if it was someone's effort to add some hype for a news release.
So, I did some research — actually, bouncing around the Internet, which I don't much like.
As a beginning point, what defines a junior show? It is a show that involves only youth who are active/participating members in good standing of a bona fide, adult-supervised Wisconsin youth organization (4-H, FFA, Jr. breed group) by March 1st of the current year. Eligible organizations must abide by all Wisconsin State Fair Junior organization guidelines.
In short, a show where youth compete only against other youth. The 2014 Wisconsin State Fair Junior Show (held last Friday) had seven breeds participating with a total of 983 animals entered by about 600 exhibitors.
When the subject of "big" dairy shows are mentioned, World Dairy Expo comes to mind with its 1,616 owners exhibiting 2,225 head of cattle from 36 states and seven provinces. However, there is only one junior show during the five days of competition — the International Junior Holstein show with about 250 entries — that's but a quarter of the State Fair total.
The All-American Dairy Show held in September in Harrisburg, PA, offers a stiffer challenge. They do have a junior dairy show that includes all seven breeds and last year had 979 animals entered — five animals less than Wisconsin's 983 head of this year. But, a year ago, there were about a hundred less junior animals at the Wisconsin fair.
As often been said, "Figures can lie," and the facts may be different than my cursory search produced.
Bottom line — who really cares? Certainly not the young exhibitors from all across Wisconsin who followed their cattle to West Allis, many for the first time; got to sleep in a dormitory-type setting in a strange bed among a room full of strangers without mom or dad there to give a wake-up call; shared barn duty with others from the same county who might have different ideas on how to keep a neat display and how to sweep 50 feet of concrete; and found out that hamburgers and pop for breakfast for four days running were not as good as mom's eggs, bacon and cereal.
Whatever the experience might be, good or bad, the young boy or girl will never forget them, even when they are not so young and watching their grandchildren in perhaps that same show ring 40 years from now.
Yes, the show ring at state looks exactly the same as it did when I was a 12-year-old boy leading G-Farms Moonlit Fobes into the show ring decades ago. I was nervous — afraid that gentle junior bull calf (bulls left the show ring some years ago) might turn playful, and I'd be so embarrassed.
I remember a Madison farm reporter writing that the exhibitor (me) and the bull chewed their gum and cud in tune.
What I don't know is whatever happened to that blue ribbon that rested in a drawer at home — probably went in the junk at the farm auction when my parents quit farming.
McKylie Hoff and the 10 other Barron county exhibitors will remember the long trip to the fair. Unlike southern Wisconsin dairy youth who probably get to the Milwaukee area fairly often to Brewer games, shops or museums, Barron County is a long way from West Allis and far from being a casual trip.
She will also not forget barn duty and answering not-so-dumb questions from city folks such as "What do cows eat?"
Sydney Endres, who lives on a 725-cow Jersey dairy in Lodi, most certainly will remember the 2014 State Fair because she was in the center of the Junior Jersey show — yes, the center of the show ring, where as National Jersey Queen she was handing out ribbons and trophies to the class winners.
Sydney, now a sophomore in dairy science at UW-Madison, doesn't remember when I first wrote about her parents Dave and Patty Endres when they were renting a farm near Waunakee and were switching from Holsteins to Jerseys and her older brother Vinnie was sleeping on the floor next to the kitchen table where we were talking.
I followed the Endres family to the larger farm they bought near Lodi where they grew their cow numbers to become one of the bigger Jersey herds in the state. And, I well remember Patty's heart transplant and nine years of life it gave her.
The Junior Dairy Show draws a near full house to the coliseum on show day as parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends come to watch the 12-year-old beginners and "old pros" who are maybe 20 years old parade their cattle before the silent, sometimes rather stern and always focused judges.
For sure, that very large floor of that big open-sided building turns into a "four-ring circus" during midday of show day as the Jersey; Red and White; Brown Swiss; and Milking Shorthorn shows ran at the same time — each in their own corner of the ring, each with their own judge and crowd in the bleachers.
It's sort of mass confusion — for the uninitiated, not the veteran — Junior Dairy Show goer: cattle coming in one end, cattle leaving that same end; announcements over the loud speaker (which I couldn't understand) calling for cattle, announcing class winners, giving instructions and judges giving reasons; official photos of breed winners being taken at the prepared backdrop; and people like me and other media types and officials of one sort or another taking up space. The result is a memorable event for all.
The dairy cattle are housed in the two large barns — one big, high and very old (but still good) the other a more modern, pole-structure-type building.
On show day, the barns are astir with cattle being clipped, combed, hair-sprayed, shined and whatever else the exhibitor and their retinue of family, friends and fitters do for a grand entrance to the show ring (First impressions of the judge are so important, many pro-showmen will say).
Amidst the chaos, the city visitors are trying to figure out what is going on but in most cases are to shy to ask.
"Look at that," a well-dressed women commented to her female companion. "He's spraying that cow with something. What's he doing?
'He's using some kind of hair spray to keep the well-brushed top line of the cow in place," I interjected.
"Oh my goodness," the woman responded. "I can't believe what I'm seeing; this place is like a beauty parlor."
Indeed it is, but much more. A Junior Dairy Show at the State Fair is a lot of things: beauty parlor, animal nutrition school, dairy education center, human relations training school and most important of all, a place for youth to learn, grow and experience life.
As for the calves and cows, they ponder, enjoy the attention and do their best to work with their exhibitors and owners. You don't think so? Just look close and watch.
Is this the biggest junior show? Probably, but the cattle and kids don't much care.