July 21, 2013

Cattle show is no beauty contest

Peter Hagar

---- — I went for a walk early this morning, early enough to see the sun rising and the haze clearing. While it had cooled down from the previous day’s heat, the cows were still lounging under some trees recovering.

When they finally noticed my arrival, they gradually got up, stretched and met me at the fence line, ready to move into the next paddock and some fresh feed. After doing a quick head count and confirming that none had gone astray, I watched them mingle and then head off into the tall grass 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 my week still had in store. The Clinton County Fair is in its third day and there are still many agriculture-related activities under way.

Much of my time this week has been spent at the fair helping with livestock shows. 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 shows have 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 show. 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.

While the local beef-cattle show is small and there are only a few entrants, I am sure that many hours of hard work was done by the farms involved. Training and preparing a beef cow to lead around a ring in public is no easy task.

As opposed to dairy calves that are handled routinely, beef calves are usually left with their mothers on pasture for six to seven months and have little human contact. Just catching one is usually a challenge. What the judge will be looking for in the beef cattle show ring will be appropriate size for their age and breed, correctness of their feet and legs, smooth and moderate thickness of muscling and a good disposition.

That would be just beautiful.

Anyone interested in learning more about raising beef cattle or starting a small farm 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.