July 22, 2012

Cattle judging is no beauty contest


---- — I went for a ride on the ATV early this morning, still a little dew on the ground and early enough to see the sun rising, the misty fog clearing and a shimmer of sun off the lake. Since we got over an inch of rain last Sunday, the field of sweet corn has grown at least a foot in height. 

The combination of rain and steamy heat has rejuvenated corn and given the pastures a boost. As I approached my herd of beef cows, they began to bellow and move slowly across their hillside pasture towards the gate. After doing a quick head count and confirming that none had gone astray, I opened the gate to the next pasture and watched them stream through and then begin to wander off to graze. A couple of the more curious calves stood 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 ride I began to think of what my day still had in store. As I write this, the Clinton County Fair is in its second day and I am helping out at the 4-H dairy cattle show. I started thinking about the reasons for cattle judging and why farmers would be interested in bringing their cows 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 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.

Later in the week is the 4-H Beef Show. 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.

While the 4-H Beef Show is small and there are only a few entrants, I am sure that many hours of hard work was done by the 4-H youth involved. Training and preparing a beef cow to lead around a ring in public is no easy task. Hopefully raising and feeding their animal over the past year has developed their interest and inspired them to come back next year. The 4-H program exists to provide positive youth development opportunities in a wide variety of science, citizenship and personal development.

Anyone interested in learning more about raising beef cattle, 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.