Too cold and rainy to farm, so go to a dairy show

John Oncken

Friday and Saturday, a week ago were not unusual spring days for Wisconsin: raw, windy and mostly cloudy weather better made for inside work rather than doing yard chores or working land on a tractor without a cab. The kind of days when you wished you hadn’t gone to that light-weight jacket instead of staying with the heavy-lined winter coat.

A two day show

They were however, good days to attend the Midwest National Jersey and Red & White dairy shows on Friday and the Holstein show on Saturday and not feel too guilty about the idle tractors just sitting in the shed waiting for the fields to dry out. And, a rather good crowd made it to the Friday event where 66 Jerseys and Red & Whites competed in their breed and age classes.

Hannah Nelson, Elkhorn and Noah Bilz,  Dorchester are happy with their Intermediate Jersey Championship placing. After meeting at a Jr. Holstein meeting they bought a (then) calf together.

The winners

Topping the Red & White show as Grand Champion was Miss Apple-Snapple-Red-ET,  the 1st Aged cow, exhibited by Milk Source LLC, Kaukauna, WI.

The Reserve Grand ribbon went to Milksource ABT Tessa-RED-ET, 1st senior 2-year-old, exhibited by Grady & Lane Wendorf, Ixonia, WI.

Grand Champion of the Open Jersey Show was  Hi Poits-Concept Spunky Morgan, 1st aged cow, exhibited by Jason Luttropp, Berlin, WI. The reserve Grand went to Stone-Front Getaway  Momosa, 2nd aged cow, exhibited by Joel Kietzman, of Waunakee, WI.

The Saturday Midwest National Spring Holstein Show had 249 entrants in the many classes - the Fall Heifer Class with 49 calves being the biggest - making for a long day. Judge Keith Topp of Botkins Ohio,  proclaimed : Sco-Lo-Af Sid Sangria-ET  1st Sr  3 Yr old, exhibited by James Ostrom and John Vosters, Kaukauna as the Grand Champion with Reserve Champion being: Co-Vale Dempsy  Dina, 4270 - ET exhibited by Milk Source LLC and Ransom Rail Farms, Kaukauna, WI.

Five leadsmen and five cows in line and posed for the judge.

As has been happening for the past decade or so MilkSource LLC at Kaukauna has topped many of the show classes and again had the Grand Champion R&W and Holstein. I’m not a cattle judge but I’ll want to remember that Grand Champion Holstein “Sangria” — young yet as a 3-year-old — come Dairy Expo time. 

Can mean a lot

If you are not a follower of purebred, registered dairy cattle, chances are the names, owners and placings mean little to you but to the registered breeders they mean a good bit often including the dairy where the animal was bred and the breeding behind the pedigree. However, times have changed a good bit in recent years with the advent of genomics where a readily available test will provide the genetic potential of an animal.  

For many decades genetics were based on the show winnings of a cow (or bull) and they often competed in shows across the country. Owners and even states moved dairy cattle by train with an accompanying caretaker crew living in the refashioned box car. The big shows ranged from Chicago’s International Amphitheater to the Cow Palace in San Francisco with stops in between.  

Working together (from left) Nichole Miller Speich, Orfordville; Brock Kasten, Brillion and Amanda Gehrke, Marshfield.

I don’t know if any of the old timers or now dead members of the cattle crews who traveled by rail ever wrote a book about the experience. I wish so.

Top of the herd

The cattle at the Wisconsin Dairy Showcase are not cattle that are just picked out of a milking line, washed up, put on a truck and go the show. No way.  

Most have been handpicked at an early age on the basis of their female relatives' show ring and production success and their sire’s genetic success as major selection factors. If they look good, according to breed standards, and show potential as possible “winners” they are then groomed, fed and managed for show competition.

Not all promising calves or heifers make the grade in the show ring, in fact, only a very few make it to grand champion status in major judging competition. But, those that do may gain fame and fortune through sale of their offspring as live animals or embryos and their owner/breeder will be known nationally and even worldwide. 

Enter genomics

The advent of genomics has changed the dairy show scene. No longer are show winners assured of a profitable and famed future unless they embody the genomics that other breeders desire. I asked a half dozen prominent dairy breeders about the dairy shows and competition today.  

“It’s a hobby,” each answered.  Today, cattle shows are all about the competition, the experience and the friends one makes along the way.” several added. “It’s like a big family, everyone knows each other and we talk a lot with each other at the shows,” another says.

Where the action is

A dairy cattle show is not especially interesting in terms of fast-paced action, in fact. some of the most rapt show watchers have described the experience as rather like “watching grass grow.” 

Jim Ostrom leading “Sangria” during her Sr.Three Class, long before she was crowned Grand Champion Holstein.

It’s planned that way: All the better to see the fluid motion of the tall, heavily uddered cows with heads up and on parade as they circle the ring; The same for younger animals, the better to see their style and potential; These are animals parading before people they are not familiar with and sounds they’ve not heard before.

At what other competition will you find professional leadsman who have been showing cattle for decades and won grand championships at major dairy shows and teenagers competing for the first time at a major show in the same ring at the same time seeking the purple ribbon? It happens at most every dairy competition.

Those men and women and boys and girls leading the animals into the ring are a show within themselves. The audience watches closely how the leadsman (or woman) handles the 6-foot tall, veteran of the show ring, cow, or the skittery, first time in public, calf.  Are they giving the judge a good look at the animal? Or, is the cow or calf never the center of the judge’s attention, thus doomed to a mid to bottom placing?

The local county fair is often where youngsters first begin showing calves: many fairs have “little britches” contests for 6 to 9-year-olds, then it’s on to 4-H. For those who get “show fever,” they will move on to the bigger leagues of the state fair and breed show competition with their own cattle or for someone else. Many see showing and winning at World Dairy Expo as the world series, final four and super bowl of cattledom. 

Jeff Brown, of Jackson Center, Ohio, judge of the Jerseys and Red&Whites ponders a class.

Showing cattle is not just grabbing a rope and pulling. It’s understanding the animal and vice versa, It’s almost a synchronized dance with each partner understanding what the other is thinking and doing.  

Thinking? Yes.

Do calves and cows really think and understand? Of course they do. I know my little bull calf G-Farm Moonlit Fobes did when we competed at the state fair (and got a blue ribbon) so long ago. I also know our quarterhorse Princess understood absolutely everything when my daughters rode her in farm fields or into the show ring. Ask the top dairy showman of today. They’ll explain.

Better yet, attend a cattle show. Check www.WisHolsteins.com and note a series of district shows coming up and see for yourself. 

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.