Showing cattle for many reasons

John Oncken
Now Media Group

Last Thursday was one of those perfect days for making hay, playing baseball, going swimming, doing nothing or just being alive.

It was also a perfect day for showing Holstein dairy cattle as a big crowd and 216 head of cows and calves gathered at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison for the District 6 Holstein District Show proved.

This was the eighth and biggest of nine such shows on the Wisconsin Holstein Championship show schedule that began June 13 at Barron and ended June 27 at Lancaster. Some 1,300 individual calves and cows paraded before judges during the two-week period.

On approaching barn No. 2 at the New Holland Pavilion where the show was being held, I was hailed by Amy Larson of Larson Acres in Evansville who was supervising her husband, Jamie, and daughter, Ellie, who were washing calves.

'Ellie is done showing, but we're giving her calf a good bath before heading home,' Amy explained. 'Our family has 10 animals shown by six youth members at the show.'

Amy, Jamie and Ellie

Of course we got to talking about my column years ago telling the story of how Amy was paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident in high school, married Jamie Larson and became an important part of the dozen (or more) members of the Larson family involved in the 2,400-cow dairy .

And about how that 10-year-old daughter decked out in calf washing clothes was that very same, impossible, miracle baby born to Amy and Jamie a decade ago.

'Would you believe, John, that on Monday, she was dressed so much differently performing in a solo dance competition in Chicago?' Amy asked,

Of course I believed it. That's nothing compared to what happened 10 years ago.

Championship shows

In 1960, the Wisconsin Holstein Association initiated a series of 10 district shows leading to the Wisconsin Championship Show. . The idea was to make it easy for registered dairy breeders to exhibit their animals in a nearby location so they didn't have to haul cattle a long way and could get home at night.

The shows are also a time to parade animals that might develop into real, long-term winners at future shows. 'It's kind of a test run for cattle and people,' a breeder once told me. 'Will the calf show potential, and will my son or daughter be interested?'

The State Championship Holstein Show is scheduled for July 28-30, also at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. Then there are the county fairs, the big junior dairy show at the Wisconsin State Fair, Aug. 6-8, and World Dairy Expo, Oct. 4-8 in Madison.

Although Holsteins are far and away the biggest of the dairy breeds, each breed has its own schedule of shows allowing almost every one in the dairy business to compete on the 'tanbark trail' if they want to. By and large, young people from ages 9 to 21 make up the majority of the exhibitors, except for the championship breed shows and World Dairy Expo, where the 'pros' appear in force.

Showing cattle

In all honesty, cattle showing is an activity participated in by a small minority of dairy producers — mainly registered breeders — who raise and sell purebred cattle. Commercial dairy herds who emphasize milk production seldom get involved in the show scene other than having their children compete as 4-H or FFA members.

Most often, dairy discussions center on the amount of milk produced by a given number of cows and how they are fed and managed. It's a mind boggling science and always has been as dairy producers seek to make milk and do it at a profit so the farm can exist.

However, the showing (or competition) aspect of dairying is vibrant, colorful and flourishing and historically had much to do with producing the great dairy cows we have today. Also, it is often considered the 'fun' part of raising dairy cattle by those who do it.

In simple terms, it's exhibiting cattle of a similar age head to head before the eyes of a judge who decides which animal is best, next best and so on down the line.

Cattle competition probably dates to the earliest days of dairying when farmers bragged that their cow was better and prettier than the neighbor's cow and arranged for another neighbor (or outsider) to look at both animals and make the decision.

Over a hundred years ago, each dairy breed established breed standards, and all competitions are judged on how closely the cow or calf matches those true type qualities. Note: the skill of the person leading the animal always had, and still has, much to do with how the judge views those qualities. That's called showmanship.

This led to formal dairy shows developing across the county, from small local events to county and state fairs to the big shows like World Dairy Expo in Madison in October and the Canadian Royal in Toronto in November.

Stories abound regarding the national show circuit back in the 30s and 40s when the big herds, often owned by big operations like Pabst, Carnation and Maytag, and state herds traveled by rail to the Iowa and Minnesota State Fairs, Dallas, Chicago, the Cow Palace in San Francisco and the Dairy Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa.


Just why do some dairy folks spend the time, effort and money to take one or a dozen animals to a dairy show? For lots of reasons:

·It's my best merchandising tool; it's a showcase where other breeders can see my cattle and perhaps purchase animals from me, a well-known Dane County breeder explained.

·It allows us to gain respect for hard, sometimes dirty, work, an 18-year old girl said. And that this work can oftentimes bring good results.

·We learned how to work together and with others, a brother and sister combination explained.

·A dad of a teen age girl exhibitor said, 'It teaches you how to win with grace and lose with dignity.' His daughter and her friend nodded their heads in agreement.

·Other reasons given include the following: 'It's in my genes; I loved to show as a kid and still do as an older dairyman; I plan to compete for 50 years, where else can you do that? a veteran exhibitor asked.' All the teenagers I asked at this show agreed they enjoyed showing for many reasons, but all said it was 'fun, fun, fun.'

·Ten year old Ellie Larson said she liked showing because she 'loved snuggling with my calf.'

If you haven't been to a dairy show in recent years (or ever), you ought attend one this fair season. Where else can you see teenagers compete against seasoned professionals, see intense competition that is almost poetic in nature and see a place where winners don't do a victory dance and losers don't cry in shame? Try it, and you will experience the world at peace and life at its best.

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