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Ayrshire Roundtable: Preparing for the 'Big Dance'

How Ayrshire exhibitors gear up for the International

Showing at World Dairy Expo is the honor and thrill that many registered Ayrshire breeders young and old look forward to every year. The high-quality cows, reunions with old friends, booming trade show and plethora of events combine to make it the highlight of a year of hard work. We spoke with [four] Ayrshire breeders who are no stranger to the colored shavings to ask them about their experiences at Expo and the work it takes to get there.

Mary Creek is one of the many at Palmyra Farm in Hagerstown, Maryland, who work hard all year to prepare for fall shows. They milk 120 Ayrshires and are world-renowned for their success at Madison and beyond.

Mark Brown and his wife Becky farm with Becky’s parents Brenda Martin and Bryan Everson at Glenmar-Dale Farms in Wisconsin. Mark also works as a nutritionist. They milk 85 cows, including seven Ayrshires.

Greg Evans of Sunny Acres Farm in Georgetown, New York, is part of a six-generation dairy that milks 50 Ayrshires and focuses on show type and marketing. They have bred, owned and developed numerous All-Americans and Junior All-Americans over the years.

Gene Hall, Jr. began his own operation near Cushing, Oklahoma in 1999. They milk 140 cows, who are pastured year-round, with free choice minerals and various hay. Hall’s Ayrshires is another nationally-recognized herd for producing high-quality Ayrshire cattle.

How long have you been exhibiting at World Dairy Expo? What made you go first, and why do you continue exhibiting Ayrshires there?

M. Creek: We began exhibiting at Expo in 1977 when the national show was moved there. We did not exhibit there from 1980 until 2003 because Ayrshire went to a regional national show format, so we exhibited at Harrisburg the Eastern National. We have been there every year since 2003 and with full strings of six or more animals since 2004.

M. Brown: We have only been exhibiting Ayrshires for seven years at WDE, but have been exhibiting Holsteins, Jerseys and Brown Swiss for over 20 years.

G. Evans: Sunny Acres first exhibited at WDE in 1988 as part of the World Ayrshire Conference. It was the opportunity to be a part of the largest Ayrshire show in US history. We then exhibited two times in the 90s before taking a hiatus until 2005. We returned to Expo because that’s where the best from across the country competed. It also holds great weight in the All-American contest with the winners typically faring extremely well. As we move forward, we will use our WDE results as a marketing tool to sell animals from the show string, plus their daughters/embryos.

G. Hall: I have been showing cows my whole life and going to Madison was always a dream. So far from home and such amazing cattle was intimidating, but in 2002 we decided to give it a try. We had a great time and have been coming back ever since.

What kind of a feed/activity regimen do you have for your heifers and cows that are headed to Expo? How different is it than your other animals?

M. Creek: For many years, we simply loaded them on the truck and went. About five years ago, we started separating out the cows a few weeks before the trip and transitioned the cows to a hay and grain diet and away from our herd TMR. We rarely show heifers, but they usually spend about three weeks off the TMR and on hay and grain.

M. Brown: We show at several shows over the summer, so the heifers are on a ration of protein pellets and hay that matches with their needs. Some years we have more calves, where this year we have yearlings, so the ration changes based on the heifers’ needs. Becky evaluates the heifers and changes hay when needed. We try and have several types of hay on hand. The cow herd is fed corn silage, baylage, pasture and a grain mix in the summer, so the only thing that changes at a show is no pasture or corn silage, so we substitute beet pulp and other forage for those.

G. Evans: Our milking cow ration at home is fairly basic as we are not set up to feed a TMR. The cows receive free choice hay or baleage plus three feedings a day of a specially formulated grain from our local mill. We believe that keeping cows on a routine is huge and that feeding at shows should mimic what we do at home in both amount and timing. Our heifers are separated by size and fed a 40% grain plus free choice first-cutting hay.

G. Hall: All of the show heifers are separated into a lot and put on a high protein, mineral and grass hay diet for the summer through the show season. This makes it easier to work with them and make sure that each heifer is progressing. The show cows are separated each afternoon and fed additional grain, top quality hay and mineral. This way we can better manage their diet and milking schedule and see how each cow is developing.

How do you decide what animals make the cut? When is that decision usually made?

M. Creek: Making the decision on what to exhibit is interesting. We are a very interactive family and there are lots of discussions about who is good enough to go. Over the years, we all have developed a pretty good eye for cattle that can perform well in the show ring. The decision is also based on the costs, so marginal animals get left behind.

M. Brown: We go to a local High Protein Show, Wisconsin Ayrshire State Show and a couple competitive county fairs to decide who is good enough for WDE. However, sometimes heifers just change over the summer and the string changes and cows freshen all summer, so it just comes down to evaluating animals at entry time.

G. Evans: The show string line up is evaluated year-round, with it changing numerous times, as heifers mature or freshen and depending on cows’ body condition and stage of lactation. World Dairy Expo line up is finalized around New York State fair, as we assess how they respond to trucking, bagging and the overall show program on show day.

G. Hall: We generally pull out multiple heifers in each class early in the summer and by the time our county fair comes along in late August we have narrowed it down to just the top heifers in each class based upon how they have developed over the summer. Whichever heifers are ready to go make the cut for county and state shows. By the end of our state show we pick our string for Madison.

What is the biggest challenge in getting animals ready ahead of show day?

M. Creek: Getting them ready before show day is just like any other day. Keep them happy, eating, resting, milking and healthy. If that all comes together it is much easier to have them ready. Long term there is planning necessary that is related to pregnancy, length of lactation, estrous cycles, etc. that can affect their preparation for show day.

M. Brown: The big challenge is just time - finding time to make sure the animals are worked with enough to look their best. There aren’t many tricks for getting animals ready, it’s just work, leading, washing, clipping, trimming feet, picking the pack, etc.

G. Evans: Living in central New York, trucking becomes the biggest challenge as our girls can spend well over 16 hours on the trailer, with one stop on the way for chores. We generally make sure to arrive as early as possible. Coming from this far of a distance, we have to give the cows 24 hours to recover in both milk production and rib structure. Being as though the Ayrshire show is the first show of the week on Tuesday, we have to take certain measures to ensure the cows are ready for show day. We typically try to fill the cows almost like show day before getting on the trailer to stem the loss of body mass from the trip while providing ample water and hay inside the trailer.

G. Hall: Our biggest challenge getting animals ready for show day is having enough time for the cattle to recover from the long trip and then to get used the different hay. We don’t have room to bring our own hay so when we get here, everything is new and because we show on Tuesday, some of the animals have a hard time getting a good fill. By the end of the week they look great but showing early in the week is our biggest challenge.

How far of a drive do you have to Expo? What preparation do you have for the actual travel to the show?

M. Creek: We are about 750 miles from Expo. We are lucky. We can feed, milk and load and make it without having to stop and chore on the way.

M. Brown: We are very spoiled, we are only 1.5 hours from WDE, but it doesn’t matter how far you are from the show, you still have to load everything you need. We do have an advantage of knowing the Madison area very well and can get something from home if needed.

G. Evans: Our drive is 16-18 hours. Preparation for travel consists of many aspects. Lining up trucking for us isn’t usually an issue as were lucky to have the cows on a 40-foot air-ride trailer which greatly reduces stress from the road. Being that far from home, you need to have everything organized as far as tack and grain while making sure to have a reliable source of bedding and quality hay from either the grounds or the area surrounding Madison.

G. Hall: It takes about 15 hours for us to get to Madison. Not really long enough to stop, unload and milk but long enough to be hard on the cattle. The trip really takes a lot out of them and us.

We bed the trailer down and pile hay in front of the animals but they won’t get fed or watered until they get into their stall. By the time we bed down and get unloaded, they have been on the trailer for about 17 to 18 hours. They pretty much just lay down and sleep for first two days.

Once the animals are on the grounds, what regimen do you have for them?

M. Creek: The daily show routine is pretty standard. Early mornings, milking, feeding, washing, clipping.

M. Brown: We just have a normal show routine, by WDE time, the string has been on the show ration and that doesn’t change until show day and so the animals settle easily.

G. Evans: Keep them on a routine that promotes familiarity both in feeding and milking times. It makes a huge difference in their ability to snap back from the trek out.

G. Hall: Once we are there we try to let them rest as much as possible and get back on a normal schedule. We usually milk at 6 and 6, grain the cows three times a day and push the hay as much as possible.

What is your favorite part about exhibiting at World Dairy Expo?

M. Creek: The challenge, rating our animals against other breeders, visiting with friends, marketing, networking and learning.

M. Brown: There are too many things we like about WDE to mention all of them, but the biggest thing about this show is, it is just dairy. The people that attend and exhibit are dairy people, they may not all be Ayrshire people, but they appreciate a good cow no matter what color or breed.

G. Evans: Truly too many to count! It’s where the dairy industry meets, so most importantly seeing old friends that you only get to see that week. That first moment you walk on the colored shavings with your animal and your heart beats just a little faster and you get the chills. The anticipation and calm of the early hours before the show has always fascinated me. When you see someone have their “Expo moment.” The competition and comraderies have always been important.

G. Hall: The best part about showing at Madison is seeing the amazing cattle. We don’t get to see many Ayrshires in our area other than our own, so it’s great to see the cows in person that we only get to see on Facebook posts all spring and summer.

What kind of help do you need back at home to be able to be “all hands on deck” at Expo?

M. Creek: We have to hire a few extra people to cover the day before the show and the day of the show and the next morning until the regular crew gets back home. Family members who have other careers are usually called on to fill in also.

M. Brown: Becky’s mom and dad keep the farm running and Becky and I do the show work, but always round up some help for show day.

G. Evans: “All hands on deck” is by far an understatement, both for Expo and at home. Over the years myself, Andrew and my father have rotated who stays home to manage the farm, and in most recent years my father has spent more time at home. We are also fortunate enough to have a two-year agriculture college not far away, and have never had trouble getting a few extra set of hands around the farm for the show season.

G. Hall: Finding help is hard and getting harder every year. That is our biggest challenge when preparing to leave for any show. We have a full-time milk hand that works every day when we are gone, and my Dad is there to watch over things. We have to find another hand that can be there every day do help him with chores. They do a great job keeping things going while we are gone.

Do you have any special tips for young Ayrshire breeders who have their sights set for the colored shavings?

M. Creek: Give it a try - you will regret forever that you never tried. No matter your results, it will make memories and stories for a lifetime.

M. Brown: Showing is a combination of the right animal and the right preparation to get to the top of the class. If you are young and ambitious find a mentor and work with them to develop skills needed to accomplish this. Becky and I still learn from watching others at shows and asking questions. Get to know as many people as possible and learn from each.

G. Evans: World Dairy Expo is a journey, and a journey for all those involved in the growth and development for that special heifer or cow. Every day when you go to barn, treat her as she is the next Expo winner and you will never be disappointed.

G. Hall: I think every young person that likes to show should strive to make it to the colored shavings at Madison. It’s the World Series of cow shows!

All the time and effort for a trip around the ring brings up a simple question – what makes it worth it?

M. Creek: Challenge, Competition, Rewards, Added Value, Winning, Memories.

M. Brown: We enjoy the competition, the people and the dairy cattle business. I got bit by the show bug with a Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation bull calf at the county fair a long time ago and that feeling of standing in the middle of the ring holding the trophy has never gone away and keeps me wanting more.

G. Evans: Walking across the colored shavings no matter the placing is always worth it! It’s being fortunate enough to stand in the top five animals in the United States that really takes the cake. Since our return to World Dairy Expo in 2005, we have been fortunate enough to have multiple class winners and the ultimate top honor of Grand Champion Ayrshire cow.

G. Hall: It’s great to see what all of the mating and hard work put in over the past year has produced and how the breed is progressing. Just being a part of the greatest event in the dairy industry is exciting and the highlight of my year. Great cattle and great people make it a great trip.

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