Judging cattle: The inside scoop

John Oncken
A good judge does a lot of looking and a lot of storing in his/her memory especially in a large class of cattle.

The class of some 30 Brown Swiss heifers slowly filed into the ring – just over half of the floor of the Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. They came at a slow, deliberate pace, each animal under the firm control of their handlers, who ranged from teenage girls to grandfathers with decades of experience.

The judge stood unmoving and expressionless with arms folded and intently watched each animal with what might be a withering gaze, but the exhibitors were satisfied that he had viewed their calf 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.

No cheering

By and large, dairy cattle judging is a quiet, almost genteel affair. But to those involved – the leadsman, show ring assistants, dairy queens seated at chairs along the hockey boards, 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.  Especially when the judge begins selecting the top animals and creates a new lineup.

A good judge does a lot of internal pondering.

A ribbon and handshake

At some point, the lineup of animals is final, and the top leadsman may even show a faint smile as he or she proudly accepts the judge’s handshake and a blue ribbon from a dairy queen. 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.

You never quit showing even when the lineup is initially  formed.

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 at a dairy cattle show. So why does the cattle judging at World Dairy Expo command international attention and importance?

It's not the fast action. A dairy show has been described as a brother event to watching paint dry and grass grow. There are few cheers during the judging at a cattle show – although many a mother of a beginning showman has bitten a lip and caused it to bleed, holding back the urge to tell Johnny or Mary to move the back leg of the calf two inches back.

And first and foremost, the judge's decision is final. No replays – and no one ever publicly utters a complaint until maybe back in the barn, and not too loudly then.

Not the money

Certainly it's not for the money. There is prize money for winners, but no one travels thousands of miles to win $50, $100 or $200, and the truth is that the blue ribbon while worth but a few cents is far more valuable, and championship trophies are priceless. It’s proof the exhibitor and the animal did it all right and was so recognized. 

A participation sport

A veteran judge once explained to me his unique description of a dairy competition: "It's actually a participation sport," Blair says. How right he is. Everyone involved with each animal – the owner, the family, the barn crew, the leadsman and a host of onlookers who might own sisters (and other relations) of the heifer –knows what is happening and probably even knows the judge as a close friend or even a competitor at other shows, watches the competition, not casually but with deep interest.

The rail birds, those closest to the show ring aren’t judges but are good second guessers.

"You must have good animals to compete here," an exhibitor friend says. "and you must present them perfectly. I don't aspire to always be the winner, but I'd like to be at least in the top 10 percent. I don't want to be last in line."

Not long ago, several friends and I were having a conversation about the upcoming World Dairy Expo and one asked what the cattle judging was all about and was the winner the biggest, longest, most gentle or just what?

A good question 

And one that many onlookers – even dairymen – can’t give a good answer to. Every animal competition whether it be dogs, cats, chickens, pigs or whatever, has a standard which might be called the “ideal.” 

The Stoughton Fair where exhibitors and judges can get a good start.

In the case of Holstein cattle, by far the biggest of cattle breeds, the “ideal” dates back to just over 100 years ago when the breed association formed a committee to design an ideal cow and bull that were made into models about a foot and an half in size. Those models are adjusted periodically – the latest being in 2016, I believe – as the animals changed genetically. The other dairy breeds also have ideals which breeders try to achieve.

Each cattle show from the county fair to World Dairy Expo has a judge or judges – individuals, men or women – who have spent time in listening, watching and learning how to judge cattle and probably started at a local show or county fair and worked their way up to ever bigger shows. (That means they must be knowledgeable, proficient and professional in their judging skills which includes the ability to explain what they did and why they did it. It’s called “giving reasons."

How well a cattle judge gives oral easons for his placings may be as important as the placings themselves.

At World Dairy Expo last week, there were 16 judges (8 official and 8 associate) who judged over 2300 animals in many different age classes. The judges were pre-selected by an exhibitor vote and several were serving repeat appearances at Dairy Expo. 

At show’s end Erbacres Snapple Shakira-ET, a Holstein from Quebec, Canada reigned as Supreme Champion. There will be no investigations, formal complaints or serious objections – in cattle judging, the judge is always right  But discussions will continue. Like Yogi Berra said, "It's never over until it's over." And it's never over in cattle competition. 

Someday she may make her way to the big ring at Dairy Expo.

John Oncken can be reached at or 608-837-7406.