It’s a year later and the dairy shows begin again

John Oncken
Each class begins with a parade to offer the judge a good view.

After a year of the pandemic, meaning few (hardly any) dairy cattle events being held anywhere across dairyland, three major dairy breed shows were held at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds April 30 - May 1st. 

The event featured the Midwest National Spring Jersey Show and the Midwest National Spring Red & White Show on April 30 and the Midwest National Spring Holstein Show on Saturday May 1.

I along with an almost bleacher filling crowd watched the 186 Holsteins ranging from young calves to aged cows parade before the eyes of Judge John Erbsen of Lanark, Illinois. As I watched the class of a dozen or so 5 year old Holstein cows slowly file into the ring of the show barn last Saturday, a thought came to mind. 

Lots of interested and attentive spectators.

Getting out

Here was a crowd of people – all Holstein lovers through profession, family or friends, siting inside a big pole-type building on a sunny, warm, spring day. Were they here for the show or because it was a chance to get away from being cooped up for over a year, not going anywhere, or far? 

What’s a dairy show?

If you have never attended a top flight dairy cattle show, let me explain: There were 18 classes (determined by age ranging from 6 months to 6 years in age) to be judged. They paraded into the show ring at a slow, deliberate pace, each animal under the firm control of their handler, who ranged from teenage girls to grandfathers with decades of experience.

Judge Erbsen gives reasons for his placings.

The judge

The judge stood unmoving and expressionless with arms folded, intently watching each animal with what might be a withering gaze, but the exhibitors were satisfied that he had viewed their animal and had made a mental file that wouldn't be forgotten.

As the animals circled clockwise, the judge moved in and out, front and back, to get the view of each animal's legs, chest, head, underline, front and rear. There is virtually no noise in the building. 

A quiet sport

By and large, dairy cattle judging is a quiet, almost genteel affair. But to those involved – the leadsman, show ring assistants, dairy queens seated or wandering the sidelines, the owners of the cattle in the ring, and the families of those leading the calves – there is tension so deep one can feel and see it go through the crowd.

An almost final lineup.

Especially when the judge begins selecting the top animals who then form their own little lineup. At some point, the lineup of animals is final, and the top leadsman hits an emotional high and may even show a faint smile as he or she proudly accepts the blue ribbon from a Holstein Princess.

The screams of joy, slapping of hands, even tears, will come later, back in the barn. But first the judge must explain why he placed the class as he did, and formal photos are taken at the mini studio set up in a corner of the floor.

And as that class leaves the show ring, the animals in the next class enter the show ring, and the competition begins again.

In cattle judging there are no last-second baskets, no rebound hockey goals, no cheerleaders doing back flips or participants holding up fingers indicating they are No. 1. So why does the cattle judging at every level – from local fair to Dairy Expo – command such attention and importance?

Lots of ribbons for winners.


Certainly it's not for the money (if there is any) and the ribbons won are worth but a few dollars. Certainly it’s not the fast action: a dairy show has sometimes been described as akin to watching paint dry and grass grow.

I’d guess it’s the pride in having the best animal that day and at that event.

Many years ago, before artificial insemination and proven sires and then more recently genomics, show winners were seen as the source of better genetics thus making their offspring of high value. But no more. Today genomics can tell the DNA and genetic value of a cow or calf long before its offspring is born. 

So why go through the effort and expense to select and prepare an animal(s) for this first major cattle show of the year? (Note: The Midwest National Spring Holstein Show is one of 11 National Holstein shows held under the auspices of Holstein USA each year and is indeed a major event.)

Being the “Best of the Best” is important to many dairy cattle breeders in terms of pride, the challenge, potential sales of offspring to other breeders and fun.  

Yes, fun! 

Fun to work with animals that are treated better than many people; fun to go through the experience; fun to feel the joy of winning and the heartbreak of losing, but knowing that even if you aren’t the winner there will be other times and places where the results may be different. Fun to meet friends from other years and other shows, and to meet new friends. This may be one of the most valuable experience of all. Attend a dairy cattle show, watch the preparations and judging and you’ll understand. 

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at