Winning ways: What makes a cow or a cavy a ribbon recipient?

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Catherine W. Idzerda
August 30, 2014

ELKHORN—By Sunday, most of the judging at the Walworth County Fair will be over.

Cages and pens will be decorated with ribbons, as will quilts, canned goods, pumpkins and artwork from children and adult competitors.

For city folks, the difference between a blue-ribbon or red-ribbon animal is a mystery often mistakenly solved by aesthetics: This chicken must be cuter than that one.

When it comes to items such as square of dried grass hay, all bets are off.

Here's how it works: Animals all have breed standards. In the case of animals such as “show chickens,” breed standards amount to a beauty contest.  For steers, pigs, fryer pens of chickens, standards have to do with what the consumer wants in meat.

Non-animal entries are judged on a variety of factors, ranging from how well canned pickles are organized in a jar to what the chocolate fudge tastes like.

We asked superintendents, judges, 4-H leaders and even the state's secretary of agriculture, for judging information about a tiny fraction of the competition categories.

—Bovine beauty: What are cows for? Making milk. In the ring, judges will talk about  “balanced mammary systems” It's not about size—too large and Bessie might step on her teats— but rather healthily big and “well attached.” 

 Sound leg structure that will help with cow withstand the jostle of the barn is important as is “width through her rump structure,” said judge Brandon Ferry.

That width will make birthing new calves easier.

Judges also look for a straight back with a defined “ridgeline.”  The barrel that makes up the cow's midsection should fall sharply away from that line.

Ferry used terms such as “chiseled at her top” and nicely  “angled.”

Wisconsin State Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel attended the fair Friday and was on hand for the dairy judging.

Brancel showed Holsteins as a boy, and was recognized as a master showman three times. He had grand champion Holstein six times.

He likes a cow that is good for the state's economy.

“I like to see a cow that can stand the test of time, that has the body capacity to consume a lot of forage,” Brancel said. “From the forage they eat, they have to have the udder to handle a lot of milk production.”

—Big ears, short nose, cute cavies: All Guinea pigs are ridiculously cute. But cute is not enough to win a blue ribbon, said Tiffany Gott, 20, Troy Center leader for the small animal project.

Breed standards for the American Guinea pig—the kind most commonly found in pet stores—include silky hair that lays flat, a nice “broken” pattern of colors, without one dominating the other.

The hair of the Teddy Guinea pig should stand up nicely, Gott said. Bathe a Teddy too soon before the show, and you'll destroy his or her natural hairstyle.

Crucial in both breeds are short noses, a high crown and big ears.

—Needle in a haystack: One of the greatest judging mysteries at the fair takes place in Horticulture Hall.  There, on the wall, are bouquets of soybean plants and bunches of alfalfa.

Tables display squares of dried grass, hay and other fodder.

What makes one a blue ribbon winner? Do they bring the ruminants in to do taste testing?

Bethel Lasch, superintendent of the farm products division, said judges are looking for evidence of insect damage—and for the insects themselves. They'll also take the bales apart to look for weed seeds.

“Really,” Lasch said, responding to an astonished look. “One judge took them (the entries) out into the sunshine and took it apart.”

For those bouquets of soybeans, judges look for insect damage and the size of pods. For other grains, they look to see if any of the stalks are broken.

There's always a contest for tallest corn stalk, too.  This year, the winning stalk came in at 16.5 feet.

Never mind knee-high by the Fourth of July.

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