As a keen showmanship class heats up, it is common for judges to “break the tie” by asking a question. As we have mentioned in previous articles, these questions should not be open-ended such as “tell me about your heifer,” but specific questions that require a well-thought-out answer.
Coyne katie
Owner / Mill Wheel Dairy Show Clinics

Often the question will be asked, “If you could change one thing about your heifer, what would it be?” In this article, we’ll discuss three key steps to knowing your heifer from nose to tail and give specific ideas as to how to answer that question if asked in a close competition. 

Judging her personality

When selecting a heifer for showmanship, there are many factors to consider. A few to note: How tall she will get in a show season compared to the exhibitor? Do her legs set up squarely every time she stops? Does she have “the look” that will get you noticed in class? While these are all important questions to ask, a key piece to the showmanship puzzle is your heifer’s personality and demeanor. Jeff Stephens, a respected showman and showmanship judge from Ontario, Canada, states that a heifer with just the right personality can make all the difference in the ring. When asked to explain, he tells youth that a heifer who enters the ring relaxed yet attentive with her ears forward quickly attracts the judge’s eye. As she parades, a calm and well-trained animal is easy to evaluate and complements its handler. 

If you are selecting a heifer from your own herd for this year’s show season, be sure to evaluate those high type heifers for their demeanor and disposition – it will pay off in the long run. When selecting a heifer at a sale, talk with the fitting crew – they know which animals came in and settled into the routine and which ones have fought it every step of the way. Just like people, cattle can vary in their dispositions and one that starts out challenging may very well stay that way no matter how hard you work with them.

Spending time in the barn

It’s been said before and will be said again – the path to the winner’s circle starts in the barn. If you want to win showmanship, a fitting contest or simply be competitive in the show ring, it’s an everyday job. If you want to know your heifer, that everyday job has to be yours – no one else can do it for you. In other words, don’t just run out and throw feed in the feeder. Watch her eat – is she aggressive with other heifers (which is a good thing) or is she timid and requires a little space of her own? Does she clean up the feed in front of her or does she pick through it? Does she dive right into her hay and take big mouthfuls or does she daintily eat it piece by piece? When you pick the pack, does she follow you around or does she mind her own business? When you lead her, what are some of her habits? Does she tend to flop over? If she does, she may do it in the ring if you’re not prepared. Learn that she wants to lick your sleeve or turn her head when walking on the halter and work those habits out of her before you get to the ring. There is no way to know how your heifer acts and reacts if you don’t put the time in with her in the barn. A final point on this – it isn’t your parent’s job or anyone else’s – it’s all yours. When you know each and every habit or quirk about your heifer ahead of time, you will be prepared for a successful glide around the show ring.

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Understand what’s trending

It wasn’t that long ago that the tallest heifer in the class was the winner. Judges forgave a lack of rib depth or incorrect legs for size and scale. In a few short years, the trend has evolved to winners with more moderate size, balance and dairy strength. With changing ideals, how is a person to know what the strengths and weaknesses of their animal are? There’s an easy answer – go to dairy judging practices! Without the proper fundamentals of judging, it is hard to know current trends, scorecard information and the intricacies of the type of cattle that are winning. Attend dairy judging workshops or practices in your county or area, and listen to the judging coaches to learn what is the type of heifer that you want. Even if you don’t plan to be a part of the actual judging team, this is a great place to learn more about the type that judges are looking for in today’s show ring. Another place to learn more about current trends is to sit and watch a show from start to finish. Attend a breed show or fair that you aren’t exhibiting at so you can judge right along with the official and compare how you do. Some of the most enthusiastic learners I have encountered in my travels with show clinics and judging have been youth who will talk about the weakness in their heifer and, unfortunately, really don’t understand what the faults are. The bottom line is that time spent at dairy judging practice, watching shows and participating in type classification programs will help strengthen your knowledge of your animal.

Let’s reflect on the famous showmanship question: “What would you change about your heifer?” Here are a few things that can give you an edge:

  • Stop your heifer and set her up.

  • Stand up straight and look the judge in the eye.

  • Practice your answer at home.

  • Select one thing that you would like to change. If you start to say two or three things, it takes up too much time, and do you really want the judge to have a list of things wrong with your heifer if they are judging them later in the show?

  • You may want to answer this with a “type” answer such as she is weak in the loin. Or if you really want to impress the judge with your in-depth knowledge of your heifer, talk about one of her personality flaws and how you’ve worked to cover it up in the show ring.

Knowing your animal from nose to tail and from type traits to personality will propel you to the winner’s circle whether you are asked this question in showmanship or not. Learning to evaluate cattle, choosing a heifer wisely and spending more time in the barn are just a few ideas to get you started on the path to success in 2022.  end mark

PHOTO: Katie Coyne assists youth in show clinics around the country. Photo provided by Katie Coyne.

Katie Coyne