July 24, 2011

Cattle judging no beauty contest


---- — I went for a walk early one recent morning … early enough to see the sun trying to break through the humid haze. On a day that is likely to be the hottest of the summer, I admired rows of corn just starting to tassel and my little herd of beef cows moving slowly across their hillside pasture. When they finally noticed my arrival, they barely acknowledged my presence, heads down in methodical grazing.

After doing a quick head count and confirming that none had gone astray, I watched them mingle and then wander off with a couple of the more curious calves still watching me before turning and high tailing it back to their mothers.

Idyllic scenes and beautiful sights are an everyday occurrence on the farm. It is sometimes hard to find the time to slow down and see the beauty of our surroundings. While on my walk I began to think of what the week still had in store.

The Clinton County Fair is in its third day and I have been helping out with both the 4-H and open-class dairy and livestock shows. I started thinking about the reasons for agricultural fairs, cattle judging and why farmers would be interested in bringing their animals to the fair for a week while there is so much to do back on the farm.

Cattle showing has evolved since the 1800s. Originally, cattle breeders would bring their cattle to a fair or market as a way to sell their stock or promote their line of breeding. Other farmers would evaluate and judge for themselves the benefits of adding a new line of breeding into their herds. In essence, the belief that function follows form was the basis for the selective breeding that began in the 1800s. Many of the major breeds of dairy and beef cattle began to rapidly evolve.

While cows have been domesticated for thousands of years, it wasn't until breeders in England and Europe began to selectively breed for certain desirable traits that the dairy and beef cattle of today came into being.

While it may seem that a cattle show is akin to a beauty contest … with fancied-up cow contestants strutting their stuff around a ring of fluffy white wood shavings, that is not really what is going on. While the showman obviously wants his or her cow to look her best, the judge is observing them for the body traits that have been established as the ideal breed standard or type.

Each breed has its own "type." Since most cattle breeds have been bred for different traits, each breed has its own class. Holsteins have been bred for size and milk production while Jerseys have been bred for the rich butterfat of their milk.

Beef cattle have been bred for a different purpose and therefore have altogether different desirable traits. There are two common sub-categories of beef cattle in the United States. English breeds and Continental breeds. English breeds such as Angus, Herefords and Shorthorns are moderately sized with fast growth and excellent marbling. Continental breeds such as Charolais and Simmental are large in size, lean and muscular.

Other exotic breeds such as Brahman cattle have been bred to more common breeds to give their offspring more heat tolerance for hotter climates.

This year, the fair was also host to the first ever meat-goat show. Quite a number of local producers worked together to organize and present their unique animals to the public. The majority of these goats are Boer goats that originated in South Africa and have been bred for meat production.

Much like the cattle breeders of earlier times, these breeders hope to expose their livestock to other producers and continue to develop their breed in the North Country.

If you have any interest in raising meat goats, the 2011 Clinton County Fair would be a great place to see some beautiful animals.

Anyone interested in learning more about raising livestock, starting a small farm or participating in 4-H in Clinton County is encouraged to contact the Clinton County Extension office at 561-7450 or email me at

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450.