County fairs aren't just carnival rides and food. When attendees sit in the stands at a livestock show, they see exhibitors dressed in a formal outfit; answer questions judges ask them while displaying control of their animal throughout the show.
The process may look easy to attendees, but for exhibitors the process to prepare animals for shows takes months of practice.
“We do a lot more than making them look pretty and big and poofy,” said Kendra McCann, 15, who showed her Black Angus Steer at the Sauk County Fair as a part of Reedsburg FFA. “We put a lot more work into it than people think we do and they think it’s a piece of cake.”
Before the livestock judge decides and shakes the hand of the exhibitor for grand champion animal or top showman, they must prepare their animals to look like a champion — a process starting long before the show begins.
Months before the show, participants will purchase their animals from a farmer or sale barn. If they live on a farm, they may raise them after they are born.
Colby Hasheider of Sauk City, who showed sheep, beef and dairy cattle at the Sauk County Fair, bought his beef cattle from a neighbor.
“My neighbors raise beef and they sold me one of their calves last year,” Hasheider, 16, said. “We bought our market lambs but we raised our ewe lambs.”
Rylie Honnold acquired her horse, Gunner, from a family friend about six years ago and will show him at the Juneau County Fair later this month. She showed her pigs at the Juneau County Youth Livestock Expo July 27 and usually purchases pigs from another farmer in the winter when they are a month old and then raises them for show.
Allison Ahrensmeyer, who lives on a third generation dairy farm in Baraboo, showed two animals at the Sauk County Fair last month as a part of Baraboo Valley 4-H Club.
“You have to look over their body make sure they stand on their feet good and make sure they are a nice tall calf,” Ahrensmeyer, 12, said. “Depth is the most important thing.”
When Allison Foster, of Portage, she would save birthday and babysitting money towards buying cattle. After 15 years of showing, she breeds and owns her own cattle.
“Meaning I’ve bred their parents and raised the calf,” Foster, who showed as a part of Montello FFA at the Columbia County Fair, said.
For poultry, Tyler Schwartz, 10, who shows chickens with Lindina Busy Bees 4-H Club in Mauston will breed his chicken and insert the eggs in an incubator and wait for them to hatch to obtain their show chickens for the year. He will show six different breeds of chicken at the Juneau County Fair August 18. His sisters, Mallory and Mariah, will show rabbits at the August 15 at the Juneau County Fair.
Choosing genetics can play an important role in looking for the perfect show animal.
“We spend a lot of time studying the mom and the dad and try to make them more predictable so you know what you buy,” said Craig Green, who judged sheep and goats at the Juneau County Youth Livestock Expo.
Hasheider has used genetics to “fix the flaws” in his herd for sheep and cattle to improve them for show.
“Our (sheep) are really muscly but they have bad front ends,” he said. “So we got a very fancy front end ram and that fixes that up so the lambs look better than the moms.”
Working with genetics is a hit or miss process, but can help craft what exhibitors are looking for in a show animal.
“It’s carefully calculated on what we think is going to work the best,” Foster said. “We are definitely striving for that show quality.”
But the acquisition is the start of trying to raise a champion.
Before the show
To make their animals look presentable, exhibitors must practice grooming, walking, and positing their feet in a correct posture to show off certain qualities of their animal.
The biggest challenge with showing animals is patience.
“You have to know each animal is different,” Foster said. “You have to learn what their quirks are and that comes from working with them everyday.”
Trenna Cherney and her sister, Sydney, will wake up at 5 a.m. beginning around late May or early June to begin training their animals for shows.
“Throughout the days of the summer we’ll keep progressing,” Trenna Cherney, said. “We have a walker for our sheep and we’ll start with five minutes on the walker. At this time in the summer we have them on for an hour. So when they are on the show ring they aren’t going to be tired.”
One of the first hurdles to overcome in larger livestock is “breaking the halter” and practice walking them in a position which stands out above all the other animals.
“That is by far the hardest part because you have to get them used to the halter and used to you,” Hasheider said.
Haschieder starts training his dairy cattle around March for show and uses feed to get the animals to break the halter.
“They were nervous at first but then we tie them up and pet them until they calm down and then you can walk them,” Haschieder said.
Lambs and goats are shown without a halter so participants must “brace” them. Because cattle are much larger animals, they will need a halter for show.
“Because they are more stubborn,” Hasheider said. “We’ll come up to a hayrack and we’ll walk them real slow on that and I’ll stand between them and pet on them so they aren’t nervous.”
Exhibitors who show horses will need a halter to show their animals for showmanship and a saddle, bridle and riding gear for riding classes. They will also practice a pattern they have to follow in the show ring.
Pigs are shown using a whip which exhibitors will tap on the side of the neck to position and move them around the show ring.
“It sounds mean but it’s not,” said Rylie Honnold of Mauston, who showed pigs at the Juneau County Youth Livestock Expo, said. “You hit them on the neck to get them to (move).”
For rabbits, Mallory Schwartz said a bath isn’t required, but animals do have to be brushed and positioned correctly to present on a judging table on show day. Each breed of rabbits and poultry will have a different pose which Mallory Schwartz and her siblings will practice with two weeks before the start of show.
“You don’t really do much with rabbits except clean their pens,” Mallory Schwartz said.
Poultry will need a bath in a dish soap and vinegar solution, examined for mites as well as have their beaks and toe nails clipped before show day.
Exhibitors will give their animals a haircut or “clip” them days before the show to make them look more presentable for the public and the livestock judge.
“You give them a nice top line,” said Tommy Lehman, 18, of North Freedom. “Spike up the hair on their back.”
Hasheider said it takes him around a half hour to clip his sheep. However, a Tunis lamb his sister, Libby, showed took four hours to clip because of its one inch thick wool.
“We rough clip them first to get most of the baby wool off,” Hasheider said. “Then we wet them down and we go over them with a fine blade.”
All the repetition of hard work and training animals prepares exhibitors and the animals for what is to come on show day at a livestock show.
Micah Reimer, 19, who showed as a part of Reedsburg FFA at the Sauk County Fair, described show day as “hectic.”
A typical day for Tanner Paulsen, of the Wisconsin Dells, during show day at the Columbia County Fair is to arrive at around 4:30 a.m. to give his Jersey cows a bath, milk and feed them as well as and change the bedding.
“The cows don’t want to move because they are still trying to sleep,” Paulsen, who shows with Columbia County 4-H, said.
Exhibitors do their best to keep their animals on the same routine as on the farm, especially with dairy cows which need to be milked at the fair.
When preparing animals on show day, every little detail matters. For cattle, after a morning bath with special types of shampoos and oils, participants will blow their animals dry with a dryer and a brush their hair in a certain direction. Exhibitors will also have to pay close attention to their cattle to try to stop them from laying down on their bedding to prevent them from getting dirty.
“If they do you have to take them down and wash them again,” Lehman said.
Even with months of training, animals can still act in an unpredictable way.
“Last year during the fair it was a cooler day and every steer was acting up because they thought it was so nice outside they wanted to run around,” Reimer said. “Once you get one animal acting up it rubs off on another one.”
Because beef and pig shows were close together at the Sauk County Fair this year, Marisa Pretzborn and her brothers, Luke and Kaleb, had some help from their parents.
“One of our parents (is) getting our beef ready while were showing pigs and then they will call us over to the (beef show ring),” Luke Pretzborn said.
Since exhibitors may have multiple animals showing close together, they may turn to other competitors to help them show their animals. Foster has shown Brown Swiss and Holstein dairy cattle for other competitors at shows.
“I’ve had many people help me over the years because we usually always have (cattle) in for champion,” Foster said. “Competing is a really funny thing because you really want to win but at the end of the day that’s not what it’s all about.”
Once an exhibitor enters the show ring or sets their animal on a show table, they make sure judges know certain qualities their animals.
“If (our pig) has a really wide front end then I’d walk straight towards them (the judge) so that they can see that better,” Kaleb Pretzborn said.
What a judge looks for in an animal depends on the type of show.
Will Coor, who judged the beef show at the Juneau County Youth Livestock Expo, said a market show will be judged different than a breeding or showmanship show.
“(For) Market (show) we’re looking for a little bit more product, a little bit more muscle … because when these leave they go to slaughter and that’s what feeds us,” Coor said. “Breeding Stock want cattle to be sound and right in terms of their feet and legs so they can go home and … produce calves for them so they can continue to come back and show.”
The questions judges ask exhibitors vary between shows. During a showmanship show, exhibitors are asked more intense questions.
“For showmanship we want to ask them what they feed, what they like about the animal so they know they are knowledgeable about their projects and they (the exhibitors) are the one’s that’s been working (on it),” Coor said.
The key to finding the perfect show animal is a balance between quality of meat shown, presence and grooming.
“You don’t want a real bully one that’s really massive and fatter up front,” Coor said. “You want a really elegant one up front and you want one that’s really good in their design.”
Esther Considine, of Portage, has shown goats at the Columbia County Fair for nine years and has won the showmanship division. Last year, she won Reserve Supreme Showman Champion at the state fair.
“For normal showing they’ll feel how their ribs are how their legs look, how their utter feels,” Considine said. “For showmanship, they look in the ears to see if the tattoos are in the right places. They go down the legs, they lift up their hooves to see if it’s trimmed and if it’s washed, they look at its knees they look at its bellies, they look at its tails.”
Ahrensmeyer said she was a little intimidated by the judge when she first started showing, but now she is used to it and takes feedback from the judge to use for future shows.
“If I do something wrong the judge can give me pointers,” Ahrensmeyer said.
Showing animals can do more than give youth awards, it can also prepare them for a possible future career in agriculture.
“They learn what the expectations of their breed is, they understand muscle to fat ratio, they understand what the consumer wants when they buy a cut of meat at the grocery store,” Judy Kennedy, youth development agent for UW-Extension in Juneau County, said. “They know how to grow a quality product because they study.”
Through her time showing, Foster has decided to pursue a career working with animals. She plans to attend UW-Platteville next year to become a veterinarian.
“(Showing cattle) taught me hard work and this is something I want to do for a career it’s opened so many doors,” Foster said.
With many misconceptions about agriculture, exhibitors must be knowledgeable to keep the public informed and in order to answer numerous questions from the public.
“Some people think their meat comes from the store,” Considine said. “They don’t think a cow is your beef.”
Foster said with many labels consumers find on products, such as organic and non-GMO, it’s important to educate others about where their food comes from.
“It’s a chance to give people some peace of mind because they are feeding their families and their children,” Foster said. “You have to be versed in all aspects of agriculture because you never know what somebody is going to ask you.”
Hasheider wants the public to understand the animals are well taken care of on farms and at the shows.
“They are like family members to a lot of us the lambs are like a baby for us,” Hasheider said. “It’s sad to see them go to market.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection website, agriculture contributes $88.3 billion to the state economy.
“Without agriculture I don’t know how we’re going to feed America with the growing population,” Hasheider said. “It helps to be active and have a part in the economy.”
Lehman said if anyone is curious about how exhibitors take care of animals to ask instead of making assumptions.
“All of the kids are happy to answer any of the questions they have,” Lehman said. “(Agriculture) feeds the world. I encourage everyone to come to the fair and learn something new.”