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Setting sail for WDE: Owners of MD-Hillbrook credit success to show crew

Kathleen O’Keefe for Progressive Dairyman Published on 28 September 2017
All-American Dairy Show

Much like embarking on a long sea voyage, setting off with a large group of cattle on a cross-country journey to World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, takes a great deal of forethought and organization by the captain and crew.

Hundreds of exhibitors undertake the journey every year, but few have as much experience and have had as much success as Chris and Jennifer Hill of Thurmont, Maryland.

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The Hills are known worldwide for their MD-Hillbrook operation, which consistently wins at the highest levels in the show ring, primarily in the Holstein and Red & White breeds. Their successful sale business is run under the same moniker and is known for hosting high-type sales that put big-league show winners up for public auction every year.

Chris is also an experienced and acclaimed dairy cattle judge and several times has officiated over breed shows at the expo, most recently at the International Brown Swiss Show in 2016.

Both Chris and Jennifer are Maryland natives, and both have had a passion for show cattle their whole lives. Married in 2005, they have been co-captaining a show string at World Dairy Expo since 2006, but both had been coming to Madison for many years before that.

They rely heavily on key members of their experienced crew. Chad Umbel is a relative and co-owner of cattle who has been joining them since 2006. Matt Hawbaker, Caleb Rossing and Madison Fisher have all been part of the MD-Hillbrook team for at least five years.

“It’s important to have a crew that meshes well together,” Jennifer says. “We are fortunate these people not only work for us but are some of our closest friends.”

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Typically, their show string numbers about 15 to 20, consisting of cattle owned by the Hills and “tie-in” cattle – animals owned by other people who pay MD-Hillbrook to transport, care for and exhibit their animals in Madison. According to Jennifer, “This is a good number for us at the expo.

It allows us to focus more on the cattle and not have to hire additional staff or feel overwhelmed. We welcome tie-in cattle, though preference is given to pre-existing clients and those who have purchased cattle through us.”

As veterans of the 825-mile trip from Thurmont to Madison, the MD-Hillbrook group has the journey down pat. Three of the crew members leave on the Thursday before the expo with a loaded tack trailer.

They drive all day and start the set-up process on Friday, which includes preparing the pack for the cattle, setting up the display and organizing the tack and show equipment for the upcoming week. The remainder of the crew leaves late Friday night and drives straight through with no chore stops, arriving sometime on Saturday.

Once settled into Madison, the concerted work begins. Known for their impeccable herdsmanship, the cattle are washed and groomed every day, and the aisle and display are kept immaculate. The Hills make sure they have a welcoming, hospitable space to greet and converse with visitors. Jennifer handles all of the display details.

Junior champions

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“I try to maintain a classy and professional look,” she says. “The goal is to get people who do not know MD-Hillbrook to say, ‘Hey, let’s go down that aisle.’ We maintain the same general look from show to show for the sake of consistency.

We are not only promoting the cattle in our string but also our sales and auctioneering company. Our display is an overall representation of how we run our business.”

A big challenge during the week-long stay in Madison is keeping both animals and humans healthy. The long trip, combined with the typical stresses of changing weather and a new environment, can create problems quickly, but the Hills have learned how to manage the risk.

Chris and Jennifer agree the new barns on the grounds are a huge asset to the overall health. “When you travel this far and have one shot on the world’s largest stage, there is no room for error, so having healthy cattle is a must,” Jennifer emphasizes.

“All of our cattle follow the health protocols for WDE and are on a regular vaccination program. We always feed additional microbial at the shows too. However, sometimes stuff just happens and, in that case, it is important to be on top of it early.

If we suspect something is off in any of our cattle, we address it right away. In fact, this is one of the key responsibilities of our night person – to make sure all cattle are 100 percent even when we are not there. I have no problem answering the phone at 2 a.m. if there is any concern for an animal’s health.”

As for the humans, though they enjoy socializing, Jennifer maintains they’ve learned not to burn the candle at both ends and to ensure everyone eats well and gets as much sleep as is possible at a cattle show.

Typically, the crew prepares cattle for a show every day during the expo – from the Junior Holstein show on Tuesday through the Holstein show on Saturday. Their attention to detail as well as selecting the right kind of cattle to show has led to a great deal of success for the string.

Along with numerous class winners in various breed shows over the years, they’ve also claimed their share of purple rosettes. In 2015, they exhibited junior champion (the best heifer of the show) in both the Holstein Show and the Red & White Show. In 2013, they won the overall Herdsmanship Award and exhibited the Junior Champion Holstein.

At an event where most exhibitors go home without a ribbon, these are notable results, for which Jennifer gives full credit to the MD-Hillbrook crew. “Ultimately, this is a team effort, and each team member has a specific job and responsibility,” she says. “Things run smoothly because everyone knows what they are supposed to do and when to do it. We all respect each other and know we are all here to do a job to the best of our ability.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Taken at the All-American Dairy Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the MD-Hillbrook crew exhibited three junior champions that week. Left to right: Chris Hill, Leslie and Linda Bruchey (owners of the Ayrshire heifer), Matt Hawbaker, Caleb Rossing, Jennifer Hill, Madison Fisher and Chad Umbel. Photo by Randy Blodgett. 

PHOTO 2: After a long trip from Maryland and a full week of overseeing a full string of cattle, MD-Hillbrook had plenty to cheer about in 2015. The junior champions from both the International Holstein Show and the International Red & White Show were members of the show string exhibited by Jennifer and Chris Hill of Maryland. Photo by Kathy DeBruin of Agri-Graphics Ltd.

Kathleen O’Keefe is a freelance writer based out of Hammond, Wisconsin.

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