Yes, there is a State Fair and it’s now

John Oncken
A last minute brushing might make a difference to the eyes of the judge.

Ask any 4-H or FFA member who has shown a calf at the Wisconsin State Fair if they remember the first time they did so. Chances are you’ll get a long speech on how excited they were, the name of the calf they showed, the color ribbon they won and maybe even what the weather was like. 

My first blue ribbon

If that first time as an exhibitor at the State Fair Junior Dairy Show came when you were 12 years old (the minimum age), as mine was, the thrill of receiving that blue ribbon for the first-place standing of G-Farms Moonlit Fobes has never been forgotten. 

That little blue ribbon bull calf my dad purchased from Gefke Holsteins at Oregon as a future herd sire did live to a rather old age – all the time trying his best to knock down his pen in the corner of the barn – has been gone for a long, long time. But, he still stands straight and tall and chewing his cud when the dairy queen handed us the blue ribbon – at least in my mind.

The near final class line up.

The 5th - 8th

And so it will be again for the exhibitors of the 848 Junior Dairy Show animals entered in this year’s show that runs from August 5-8th, at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis this week.

At this writing (August 3), the 4-H and FFA dairy animals are on their way or making last minute preparations for the trip to West Allis and arrival between 8 a.m. today and noon August 4th. 

Judging begins with Showmanship at 8 a.m. Thursday (August 5th)  and continues all day Friday and Saturday with the cattle being released on the 8th (Sunday afternoon). 

Soon thereafter, cell phones will be busy with conversations beginning with “do you remember” and ending with “I want to go again next year.” And be assured the memories will remain with the young men and women who spent the better part of a week at the State Fair.

Each county decides which calves and kids will go to State Fair. Many will bring the winners from their county fair, others with their county fair still to be held – will use a dairy committee to select the animals.

Exhibitors waiting outside the coliseum for their class to enter the ring to be judged.

It’s work

Don’t for a moment think showing dairy cattle at State Fair is about wandering around the grounds, touring the carnival or watching shows – far from it. Chances are that most dairy exhibitors spend most all their time in the barn keeping the cattle clean and comfortable, getting ready for the show ring – which means a lot of washing, brushing and polishing – or in the dorm eating or sleeping.

A slow trip through the dairy barns seems to point out that most of the manure scraping, shoveling, forking and wheel barrowing seem to be done by girls. Why so?

Four breeds of  dairy cattle were being judged at the same time on Junior Dairy day at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Neat and tidy barns

A fast survey (some years ago) of a few girl barn sweepers seemed to show that boys often have more “important” things to do like watching the show ring judging, talking sports and watching the girls. And that girls want everything to be done perfectly with no scattered bedding and everything neat and tidy.

“They (the boys) mostly lean on their forks, don’t get the bedding pack straight and are too slow to pick up the new manure,” said a girl in a group of giggling girls from an unnamed county. “But they are good to have around anyway.”

Moms, dads, farmers, former 4-Hers, dairy breeders and the public come in big numbers to see the Junior Dairy Show at the coliseum.

A learning time

An older, and well-dressed, couple were walking the dairy barn. From their dress and manner, it was obvious that they were city folks and more than a little puzzled about the long line of dairy calves they were viewing. 

They were from a Chicago suburb, and admittedly knew little about dairy cows, but liked to look at them. 

“Would you like to learn a bit more?” I asked.

“We’d love to,” they responded.

I corralled an adult 4-H leader who was also walking down the barn aisle. She had spent many years in the dairy business as a dairy farmer and 4-H leader and said she would be glad to give the couple a barn tour and an education about dairy cattle.

Thus began a half hour of dairy cattle education from the farmer guide and several fork-wielding 4-H girls from Outagamie county who provided further insight.

“They wanted to know how to judge cattle and how we got our animals ready for the show,” one of the girls said.  “And lots of other things. We told them how.”

Another young couple from Menomonee Falls and their two youngsters were looking quizzically at the long line of resting dairy heifers and they also admitted they knew nothing about dairy cattle, except in the words of the husband: “I know they eat hay.” A Green county dairyman was glad to educate them.

4-H and FFA youth are happy to educate the public about their livestock project and care of their animals.

Another young Milwaukee couple and their two children who were about to visit one of the dairy barns also said they knew nothing about calves and cows.

“Ask any one of the kids in the barn,” I suggested. “They’ll tell you."

“But, they are so busy,” the young mother said. “We don’t want to take up their time.”

Wrong! Never worry about asking questions of the youth exhibitors at a state or county fair. They are eager to explain – especially to city folks – how they raise and take care of their animals. If they can’t give an answer, they will grab an older club member or a parent who will. You’ll see the pride and spirit of accomplishment in these young people and maybe wonder why all young people aren’t so knowledgeable and mature.

Maybe it’s the work involved in raising a calf; maybe it’s working together on barn duty; maybe it’s accomplishing something even if it’s only a pink ribbon; maybe it’s working long and hard toward a goal.

Whatever, it’s there in the youth who are exhibiting at a dairy show. Go to the Fair, talk to the young people, learn about something new from a 12-year-old. Enjoy the experience, feel the pride and enthusiasm. Enjoy!

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail at