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Leading the Way: 5 practices of blue-ribbon winners

Katie Coyne for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2018
Emily Mikel practicing showmanship

Practice, practice, practice makes perfect, and it is what separates the blue-ribbon winners from the rest in a dairy showmanship competition.

The 4-H dairy project in Canada is serious business, as only the top showmen and their cattle are allowed to compete at the national 4-H show at the Royal Winter Fair. I witnessed this firsthand a few years ago, as every morning and every night two young ladies I worked with took their calves out and walked them.

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This wasn’t a casual walk around the yard. They held their heifers’ heads up, walking as if they were in the show ring, practiced moving the calf to set up perfectly every time and made sure the calves led flawlessly. These young people were rewarded for their effort with a trip to the Royal and calves that walked perfectly around the ring.

Two top young showmen from New York, Emily Mikel and Isaac Folts, can attest the hours of practice pay off. They spent 30 minutes each day in preparation for the recent Northeast National Spring Show showmanship contest. Isaac placed second in his very competitive class, while Emily was named the supreme champion showman over the other 150 contestants, proving again there is no substitute for time spent on your project animal.

If your goal is to earn a blue ribbon in showmanship, read these tips to get you standing at the top of your class. Showmanship starts with a clean, well-groomed animal. Here are a few steps to achieve that.

1. Keep your animal clean.

Studies show heifers grown in a clean environment will grow faster, so keeping the pens clean and well-bedded isn’t all about the show ring, it’s about keeping animals healthy as well.

2. Four steps for washing your animal:

  • Wet your animal front to back, top to bottom. Do not stand at the back of the animal and spray because it’s difficult to get soap out or do a thorough job. In addition, this will often result in water in the heifer’s ears. If she’s shaking her head, water is in her ears – and that’s never a good thing.

  • Once she is thoroughly wet down, use a livestock soap and a stiff brush to scrub the dirt out. If needed, use a whitening soap on white areas and the tail.

  • Rinse the soap out. Again, be sure to go front to back and top to bottom. It is recommended to rinse each side, apply a conditioner to the top and then rinse each side twice more.

  • After all of the soap is rinsed out, take a different stiff brush and brush the hair down while removing excess water. Be sure to brush the hair on her belly down too so it dries looking its best.

3. Keep these three tips in mind when clipping:

  • Practice at home. Don’t wait until you are at the show to try your hand at clipping. When clipping at home, give yourself enough time for mistakes to grow out, usually three to four weeks.

  • Watch the experts. When you are at a show, go watch the professional fitters. Stay out of the way and don’t bother them while they are clipping but, when they take a break, they are more than happy to answer your questions. They were once beginners too, and many are more than happy to help.

  • Make sure you have the right blades and clippers to get the job done correctly. Again, talk to a professional, attend a fitting and showing workshop, or ask the folks at the livestock supply store.

4. Follow these pointers on show day:

  • Here is our show day schedule to ensure a prepared and well-rested animal:

o Wash first thing in the morning.

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o When the heifer returns from the wash rack, have warm beet pulp prepared or hay ready for her to eat so she’ll dry off while eating.

o Prepare her topline and be sure to use enough adhesive so the top will stay put for the day.

o Let her lay down and rest for 30 to 40 minutes before her class.

o About 15 to 20 minutes before the class, get her up, offer her a bucket of water and then take her to the prep area.

  • Brush all the dust off the animal, as well as any straw or shavings that may be stuck on her, being careful not to forget her belly.

  • Spray the coat with a hair product that will make her shine.

  • Be sure to comb out and then fluff out the tail.

5. How to shine in the show ring:

  • When entering the show ring, walk forward (not side-stepping) at an efficient pace until all contestants are in the class.

  • Once everyone is in the ring, turn around and walk backwards, facing your heifer.

  • The judge should take this opportunity to ask you to stop and set up your heifer. Be sure the heifer is looking her absolute best. This is where all those hours of practice will make the job at hand easy.

  • When the judge walks around your heifer on the outside of the ring, take her one half-step ahead so the leg toward the judge is back.

  • If the judge walks around the front, turn and look at the judge.

  • When pulled into line, move efficiently, but do not run your heifer. Turn and walk forward at an efficient pace with your left hand in the halter and her head up. There is no reason to run your heifer to the line. A heifer never looks good on the run. Give the judge a little credit. They know where they asked you to come in and will move contestants around as the class continues.

  • On the other hand, when pulled in, get moving into the line at a confident pace, neither too fast or slow. It puts the judge in an awkward position if they pulled you in and you took too much time and ended up down the line too far to get back to the place you deserved.

  • Once in line, get your heifer set up to perfection and leave her alone. Stand up straight at the front of your heifer with her head up and her throat pulled. Keep a keen eye on the judge so when they go around the front, you can turn and look at them confidently.

  • If your heifer has been standing for three to four minutes, take a half-step forward so she doesn’t fall asleep. This will help her keep herself together and her top up. 

To earn a blue ribbon in showmanship, practice every chance you get. Attend a fitting and showing workshop in your area. Choose to compete in showmanship each time you get the chance, and you are sure to learn something new. Finally, be open to learning and take what you learn into your next showmanship class.  end mark

PHOTO: Earning a blue ribbon in showmanship begins long before an exhibitor enters the ring. Emily Mikel, pictured here, devoted time to daily practice, landing her supreme showman honors at the Northeast National Spring Show. Photo provided by Katie Coyne.

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Katie Coyne
  • Katie Coyne

  • Dairy Youth Consultant
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