Raising and preparing 4-H calves for the show ring is a rite of passage for many rural youth across North America.
Much emphasis is placed on clipping, trimming and primping the animals’ coat to make it more appealing to the judges, but the real starting point begins long before the calf is loaded onto the trailer and taken to the fair, said Kirk Stierwalt, a 40-year veteran of bovine show biz from Oklahoma.
“In show day preparation, you’re going to have to do one thing before you start spraying adhesive or even one bit of paint,” said Stierwalt, in a two-hour presentation to 4-H members at the recent Royal Manitoba Winter Fair in Brandon, Man.
“What I recommend is to read the rule book. The rules will change from show to show, and from breed to breed. You need to know your guidelines before you start.”
The next most important thing to remember is to get started early to avoid mishaps on the critical day, when it’s easy to see who has done their homework and who put it off to the last minute.
“You’re going to have a small group of people that get into their livestock, who are good caretakers and have a lot of pride in their animals. Sometimes those people are almost deemed ‘too competitive,’” he said.
“Have you ever heard that? Now, instead of those people being good caretakers, and good managers, all of a sudden now they’re ‘too serious,’ or they’re ‘too competitive.’ Hey, that’s what I want to be.”
Getting started at the last minute, which in Stierwalt’s mind is less than 30 days before the fair, is a recipe for disaster.
“Then you’ve got to get them roped, tied to the tractor. How many have tied them to the tractor? Come on, I love your honesty,” he said.
“We don’t want to do that. We want to have all that stuff done. Let’s get them broke, because the longer it goes, the worse it is. They just get bigger and bigger, and more stubborn.”
For 4-Hers planning to show cattle in the summer, late winter is a good time to deworm the calves with a pour-on treatment, which he said also helps the animals to shed their winter coats.
Stierwalt doesn’t recommend mowing off all the dead hair in one go, instead he favours gradually brushing it over time, which helps the new hair come in.
“It’s more work, but with a much better result, so that’s what we like to do.”
On show day, at least two hours are needed for final preparations before entering the ring. If the handler has been diligent in preparing their animal’s coat in the weeks up to the big day, then everything should go quicker, with just a little touch-up clipping, final comb-up and blow-drying needed.
To save time, a show halter should be slipped over the rope halter during the fitting process, he said.
Balling tails is a trend that is coming back, Stierwalt added, because it makes them look better. Lately, most of the top-showing animals have had balled tails.
This is done by gradually back-combing and spraying the hair up from the tip to form a neat tear-drop shaped ball of hair that conceals the bony tip. Again, pre-show prep pays off. If tails are combed up daily or twice daily in the weeks leading up to the show, the hair has more body and the calves’ annoying habit of swinging them diminishes over time.
“The more you comb them, the less paranoid they get about it,” he said, adding that women seem to have better success with tail balling.
“Women have the gift of doing tails. Men have a tendency to want to mash them and smash them, and get mad. The girls and the ladies, they all got this little ‘foo-foo’ action that God gave them. I don’t know how they do it,” he joked.
When training a calf to lead, grip the lead rope firmly close to the halter. Whenever a stop is required, a good habit to develop is to first signal them that a stop is imminent by lifting up on their head.
Figuring out how fast to lead the calf is important, he added. Cattle with leg or structure problems tend to bob their heads more the faster they are led. In such cases, slower is better, but with really smooth movers, a faster walk helps show off the good conformation.
“You’re going to have to figure out your animal at home, with what looks the best.”
When stroking the calf’s belly with the stick, going slowly and counting “one thousand one, one thousand two” helps to prevent the handler’s nervousness from becoming too obvious and inadvertently making the animal antsy at the worst possible moment.
“What we’re not going to do is ‘saw’ them. There’s not a kid out there in the world who, when the judge walks up will be like, ‘Oh crap, here he comes,’” he said. “That nervousness gets picked up by the calf and can mess you up.”