Great cows, great people

John Oncken
Now Media Group

That small portion of Wisconsin's 9,900 dairy herds that breed and exhibit registered Holsteins always look forward to late April and the Midwest National Spring Show.

It's the first chance to bring their prized cattle out of the barn, groom them and compete in the show ing for an early look at what the coming show season — county fairs, district shows, State Fair and World Dairy Expo — might hold.

There were some changes this year: the event moved from the Jefferson County Fairgrounds to the Alliant Energy Center and its huge New Holland dairy complex; the name was changed to 'The Wisconsin Dairy Showcase'; and the Jersey cattle joined the Red & White cattle and traditional Holsteins in the two-day show.

In spite of the two nice field work days, the crowds were big, filling several sections of the bleachers and leaning on the tall metal gates surrounding the arena area.

An estimated 85 head of cattle went under the judge's eyes in the Jersey and 90 head in the Red & White ring on Friday. And, to no one's surprise, cattle from Kaukauna-based MilkSource Genetics took Grand Champion trophies in both shows.

Champion Holstein is Red

As always, the Holstein show on Saturday brings some of the best dairy cattle (type-wise) in the country to compete against each other. If you have not seen such a show recently or ever, you'd be surprised at the size and beauty of the cows on display.

By and large, as tall or taller than their leadsmen (men or women), with their shinny black and pure white coats gleaming from washing and trimming, the animals are seemingly as interested in winning a blue ribbon as are their owners.

Each animal enters a class based on age. Some are owned by veteran showmen who have performed in the show ring hundreds of times and others by beginners like 9-year-old Tessa Schmocker of Whitewater who want to see how their calf or cow will rank alongside those of the 'pros.'

To no one's surprise, at about 4 p.m. after a long day, judge Tim Abbott of Enosburg, Vermont, proclaimed Strans-Jen-D Tequila-Red-ET, owned by MilkSource Genetics of Kaukauna, the Grand Champion of the show.

Although I'm not a very good cattle judge, I saw this coming, as 'Tequila' topped the Red and White show the day before and has won the past two Red & White shows at World Dairy Expo. Add in stern-faced (only while in the ring) leadsman Joel Kietzman, Waunakee, who is one of the best anywhere at the halter and could probably, in a couple of days, teach Tequila to dance the polka.

Inside the ring

For those unfamiliar with a dairy cattle show, let me explain a bit. I guess you could call it a beauty contest but with vary defined rules as to what beauty is. Each breed of dairy cattle (and for other farm animal contests as well) has a long list of qualities — feet, legs, stature, udder, etc. — describing the perfect type.

The 'model cows' are updated by the breed organizations with the changes that may occur over the years. Compare a cow from the early 1900s with a cow of today, and you'll see.

Judges always have a history of 'knowing' cattle as a farmer or breeder, do a lot of studying, judge at low-level shows and work their way up the show ladder.

The Holstein Association USA list 49 people eligible to serve as judges at a national Holstein show. I note three are women, and eight live in Wisconsin. Each breed has its own list of certified judges.

A quiet event

There are many differences between dairy cattle competition and most any other competition that I know of: no cheering or booing; no parents yelling at their children from the sidelines; winners do not bow, gesture or jump into the bleachers after winning the class; animals and leadsmen are identified only by a small back number listed in a catalog; and no one publicly criticizes the judge's decisions. While judging is progressing, the crowd is quiet, mostly just talking to each other with an eye on the class.

I've often heard from spectators that it would be great to introduce individual star animals and leadsmen before the judging begins. After all, the judges already know most of the cattle and owners from previous shows or work with them in other dairy capacities.

I talked with several well-known dairy exhibitors about the advent of genomics where DNA data is readily available long before a calf is born. Why show cattle, which years ago was used to help determine what a future calf might look like, when the very complete data is being used everywhere in dairyland?

John Cull of Budjon Farms, Lomira, a premier dairy operation and prize winner at major shows everywhere, provided some thoughts: 'You're right, John, genomics provides every bit of data imaginable. However, it's so complicated, few really understand it, but many commercial and registered herds do use some of the data often with the help of their A.I. organizations or consultants.

'I guess more than ever, showing cattle is a hobby, although it pretty much always was that. It's really about the competition ... and it's fun.'

Good answer, We all do similar things for the competition and fun: play golf, watch pro sports, bowl, ride a bike, bird watch and on and on, none of which bring us much financial return (except to a few professionals) but do help us enjoy life.

Notes & quotes

Kasey Lois, the young dairyman from Burlington who I wrote about in October 2014, said hello. At the time, he and his dad, Gary, were forming an LLC and moving from 100 cows down to 70 and pursuing their goal of having an elite Holstein herd.

'Everything is going well,' Kasey said. 'We took out some tie stalls and built six individual pens for our show cows. We've sold top animals in sales and have been successful in the show ring. Dad and his brothers, Andrew and Larry, operate the 1,200 acres of cropland. We're on schedule and moving along. All is well.'

The young blond woman wearing a baseball cap was watching the judging. I was curious and asked her why she was at the show?

I milk cows for Mike and Valerie Holschbach at Heatherstone Enterprises in Baraboo,' she said. 'I also help with calf care and the show cows. We have two animals here at the show.'

It turns out that Lacey Dunse, Reedsurg, had attended Southwest Tech in Fennimore, saw an ad on the internet and went to work at Heatherstone. 'I'd like to eventually return to school and study dairy herd management,' the vivacious 19-year-old said.

Cattle shows might not be full of bands, cheerleaders or slam-bang action, but you see great cows and meet some of the finest people anywhere.

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