Dairy judge searches for the perfect cow

NEW HAVEN — The bleachers were almost full at the animal show arena at Addison County Fair & Field Days as several 4-H kids led their cows inside for conformation classes, angling for a wide range of possible awards.
Large as that audience may have been, the 4-H-ers were mostly aiming to impress the person whose opinion counted most: dairy judge Elizabeth Hall of East Montpelier.
As each new category of cows was brought out, Hall strode between them with authority, inspecting each specimen and sporting a black and white floral-printed shirt that could only be described as cow-patterned.
Inspections complete, Hall grabbed her microphone and warmly congratulated the participants, as she had many times over the past few hours. Then she got down to business.
“You’ve heard me talk about my type, and that’s a balanced, correct cow,” she told the crowd, before gesturing at her chosen winner. “I’m going to go with this Ayrshire yearling. She’s flawless, she’s great to breed off of, and this young lady should be proud of this cow.” Hall smiled, and the young lady beamed.
Dairy judging, like any other judging, isn’t a purely objective endeavor, Hall explained after the show.
ELLIE BISSELL PROUDLY poses with her ribbon-winning entry in the 4-H Youth Dairy Show at Field Days Tuesday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“It’s definitely not factual,” she said. “There’s an opinion to it — how you think the type of cow is most functional, most close to the breed ideal. It’s kind of like showing dogs.”
Hall’s philosophy guides her towards uniformity, above all else.
“There’s a bit of a trend where (judges) don’t want cows to be too big. We want them to be wide-chested, big barrel, big middle,” she said. “We don’t need the super tall, super skinny, angular ones. That was a fad about five years ago, but now we as an industry are going more towards the balancing side of things.”
Of course, there’s more to judging than the decisions themselves. There’s also the showmanship of being a judge, which, unlike some of her peers, Hall appreciates.
“A lot of other judges don’t enjoy that. I do, and I don’t know why,” she said. “You don’t want people to be falling asleep inside the ring. I’m still working at it and there are certainly goals for me to hit to get better. I would like to sound even smoother, perhaps give more reasons between each placing.”
Working with adult competitors at open dairy shows, Hall said, her commentary can be “pretty strict, and pretty harsh.” Judging kids requires a gentler approach: “You don’t want to hammer them and make them not come back!”
As she works to improve her practices, Hall is setting her sights beyond the confines of New England, hoping to eventually win invitations to shows across the country.
“Hopefully, I’ll go to more shows, more people will listen to me, and more people will like me,” she said, and paused. “Or, I could screw up at one show and nobody will ever ask me again.”
The animals and the 4-Hers who show them, it seems, aren’t the only ones in the arena under pressure to show their best stuff.
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