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September 3, 2014
We spent the weekend at the South Dakota State Fair, where we exhibited our seedstock. Showing cattle is a way for us to market our cattle and interact with potential buyers. Growing up, we spent countless hours in the barn working on our cattle, and this year was no exception. Cattle shows are also the only family vacations we take, and we truly enjoy preparing animals for the ring and seeing the results of our hard work pay off.
Despite all of the positives of showing livestock, the show business has received some negative attention from mainstream media over the years.
Remember last summer’s fluffy cows? One photo of a club-calf bull went viral, making Americans fall in love with the bone and hair that make cattle look much like a real-life teddy bear. Some would say this humanized cattle, making it tougher for consumers to picture eating that food animal. Others would argue that all the fluff and puff isn’t even close to reality. Many had the opinion that the fluffy cow trend was a good way to put the spotlight on a fun part of the beef industry and attract more attendees at county and state fairs and livestock shows.
Now show pigs have made the news, and I think the livestock industry needs to respond. Last week, I ran across an article written by Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post entitled, “Swine for sale: How kids’ livestock shows became a cutthroat (and expensive) business,” and I spent the better part of the state fair pondering the points made in this piece.
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DePillis describes how a show family ran into some tough luck with their hogs and ended up purchasing some lower-quality pigs to show at the West Virginia State Fair. When the kids received last place ribbons in the show, she painted them as the victim and the winning family as the villain.
She wrote about the politics in the show ring, the intense competition of buying the best stock to win, and how the winning animal is subject to the opinion of one person. Through the entire article, she implied that this is a bad thing, and shared her views that the show industry has changed the livestock business for the worse.
Some might say there is no place for the show business in the livestock industry. They believe that show cattle are too far from reality -- they don’t represent what the packer wants or what might perform well in a breeding program or a feedlot. However, I would argue that the show cattle business (or any livestock for that matter) is what gets kids excited and engaged to be a part of production agriculture and can influence trends and improvements made in breeding programs.
Darcy Sexson perfectly describes the show experience in her recent blog post, “Why Showing Livestock Matters.” Here is an excerpt from her blog:
"I wish I could describe the feeling of entering a show ring. Or the competiveness that opens up when you grab the halter of a show heifer. Showing livestock doesn't come with a cheap price tag. But can you put a price on the life skills a child gains while showing livestock? The child who forges friendships that span species and states. The way parents can let little kids run around the barn, knowing a community of friends are watching over their well being? The trust that is developed between a youth and their animal. Showing livestock is more than just a great feeling or a number in the budget. Showing livestock is a matter of teaching children life long skills. You can't put a price on that. And that's why the cost of showing livestock in the long run is worth it....because it creates youth and future adults that matter. And we need people that matter. Showing livestock -- it matters. It really, truly does.”
Are there politics in showing livestock? Absolutely. Name one thing in life that isn’t influenced by politics. Does it pay to know people? You bet. Showing livestock teaches kids how to network, make friends and build relationships with other breeders, which are important skills for anything a kid might pursue later in life.
Is the champion chosen based on one person’s opinion? You bet. Placing is subjective to personal preference. But there’s always another show and another judge, so every event offers a new chance to have your livestock evaluated by someone different. The reasons behind a placing can help an exhibitor improve their breeding decisions for the next year, and trends in the show ring do influence genetic improvement for the entire beef industry.
Is it expensive to show livestock? Without a doubt. But as I mentioned, despite the cost, it’s a way for us to advertise our cattle, network with other cattlemen, teach kids how to work hard and take pride in how they present themselves and their cattle, and get opinions on our breeding program from others.
Just like anything in life, you get what you put into it. Life isn’t always easy, nor is it fair. But hard work can go a long way in achieving success in and out of a show ring. Sure, the winning livestock are often the most expensive ones in the ring, but if the exhibitor isn’t also willing to pay attention to details and have a good feeding and management program, that calf isn’t going to win. In the end, hard work is still an important factor in showing cattle.
This negative media attention isn’t to be taken lightly. Afterall, perception is reality, and if our consumers start to view this activity in a bad way, it won't bode well for livestock shows in the future. We need to be proactive in changing the rhetoric. First in cleaning house and getting rid of the bad actors in the industry (those who might cheat to win or lose sight of the fact that these are food animals, for example), and then showing spectators the positive side of showing livestock.
The foundation of showing livestock is still the same. It’s a way for kids to learn how to compete, network, work hard and build up a livestock program. Let’s not lose sight of that message by getting caught up in the negativity.
What do you think of The Washington Post’s take on the showing livestock? How should the industry respond? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of Beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.
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