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4-H working steer. Courtesy photo.




Inside the show ring
The culture of showing farm animals

02/25/16
By Allie Ginwala aginwala@hippopress.com



 If you live in New Hampshire, chances are you’ve gone to a county fair and seen a dairy cow or sheep presented for show, but what happens behind the scenes might not be what you expect. Here in the Granite State, showing animals isn’t done just to win a ribbon — it’s about building partnerships and maintaining a sense of community.

For a look into the state’s farm animal culture, the Hippo spoke with Mary Davis, program coordinator for animal and agricultural science at the New Hampshire State 4-H Office, Andrea Sawyer, extension field specialist for 4-H Youth Development, and Mary Fox, president of the New Hampshire Dairy Goat Association.
 
It starts with 4-H
Perhaps the biggest outlet for showing farm animals in the state is 4-H, open to youth ages 8 to 18. According to Davis, the most common animals chosen by 4-H members are horses, dairy cattle, sheep, goats and working steer. 
“We encourage them to explore and go to meet different animals,” Davis said. “If you’re not sure — ‘Do I want to show a sheep or goat?’ — you’ve gotta go meet those sorts of animals and see what works best for you.”
Often times those who want to get into showing farm animals find an organic start — their neighbor has a flock of sheep or the family wants to raise chickens — which makes it easier to fulfill the 4-H requirement of the kid doing 50 percent of the work to take care of it. 
“We really want the long-term project where the member works with a leader and mentor and animal to form a project and learn those skills about responsibility and follow-through,” Davis said.
Mary Fox and her husband bought their first purebred goat 48 years ago after they got married and bought a small farm. They both grew up on farms and were familiar with animals but decided to get involved with goats because they stay small enough to engage with young children. 
“As a result, our children were able to interact immediately, as soon as they could walk,” Fox said. “I got my grandkids in the show ring as early as 15 months old, just walked them in with me.”
 
What makes an animal shine
Whether it’s a 4-H show, an open show at a county fair or a show specific to a certain species, most farm animal shows have the same basic structure. 
“It varies by animal, but pretty much every [animal] has a fitting and showmanship class where the 4-H-er shows the animal to its best advantage, clean and well-presented,” Davis said. “Then they have to pose the animal ... to show the traits off.”
The animals are judged against those of their own age and breed, Sawyer said, and the 4-H-er or individual showing the animal needs to present herself well too. 
“Most all breeds have a standard of perfection,” she said. “So [judges look for] the animal closest to that standard, and [it] will vary from judge to judge and fair to fair.” 
The New Hampshire Dairy Goat Association shows are often sponsored by the American Dairy Goat Association so no other animals take part. Fox noted that right now the Sandwich Fair is the only one in the state that holds a dairy goat show.
“The show is sanctioned for usually eight different dairy goat breeds and so each breed would have its individual classes,” Fox said, starting with the 1- to 2-year-olds and working up the age scale. “The judge looks at the animal’s body conformation and there are score points for each part of the body and adding up the points that each animal is getting.”
The goat is essentially being judged on whether it’s truest to the breed standard, in terms of ideal health and functionality. For example, feet are worth 4 points, but the mammary, the udder, is 35 points because that’s a key part for the function of a dairy goat.
“It’s also by breed [so] each breed has their own characteristics as far as color goes and as far as some body structures are a little diverse,” she said.
As a whole, agility and skills competitions are not common for farm animal shows. Sometimes in the goat world a dairy herd will be judged to see how well the breeder does overall (it’s challenging to have multiple animals at top grade) or perhaps shows that involve children will have an unofficial race or competition at the end, just for fun.
 
Getting involved
The benefits of showing farm animals vary, but both Davis and Fox believe it taps into essential skillsets. For 4-H members, an animal project includes showing an animal but also incorporates other aspects like presenting speeches, leading demonstrations about care and grooming and even getting involved with community service, like painting a barn, fixing a fence or volunteering at an equine rescue facility.
“They learn responsibility for care of an animal, and it also gives them a work ethic too,” Fox said. “I think it gives them the opportunity to be rewarded for their work when they get a nice ribbon. It’s always nice to be rewarded and try harder.” 
 
Go to a show
For those who aren’t showing an animal, Fox thinks the draw to shows is the chance to see animals in an exciting environment.
“The public loves watching animals being strutted around doing their stuff,” she said. “They are all groomed to perfection, clipped down, feet trimmed perfectly, clean; it's a totally different thing than looking at goats on a pasture. ... They also get to see that the animals [like] dairy goats all have different personalities, very similar to us. Some are extremely stubborn, others are loving and affectionate. Some are pranksters, always getting into mischief.”
Visit nhfairs.yolasite.com/fair-dates for this year’s fair dates, and see extension.unh.edu to learn more about 4-H animal projects. 





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