Does show ring reflect ‘real’ cattle industry?

Cattle need to walk, move freely, track and travel properly with soundness, whether they are in the pasture or the show ring. The confines of the ring help the judge get close enough to inspect feet, legs, shoulders, backs and hocks while animals walk, move, stop and pose. | File photo

Do show ring cattle work in the “real” world?

It’s a question asked over decades of competitions in hushed tones behind the scenes of tiny 4-H events and large national championships alike.

At times, it’s proclaimed argumentatively in small-town diners or between ranching neighbours sitting ringside of the action.

Many responses to the query fall on the negative.

“I hear the negativity all the time and it honestly makes me giggle,” says Dawn Wilson, long-time judge and seedstock rancher.

“It’s absolutely not true. Certainly, some don’t work, but many already in the commercial industry aren’t working in the real world either. Not every single one is going to make the cut. The majority of cattle in the show ring do very well in the commercial industry.”

Wilson knows of what she speaks. Together with husband, Lee, also a frequent judge, they run Miller Wilson Angus near Bashaw, Alta., home to 150 purebred Angus.

The seedstock farm has provided embryo and semen work in 27 countries. As well, the husband-and-wife team have separately and together judged almost every breed of purebred and commercial cattle on every continent. They’ve worked national, international and world congress events along with tiny local shows.

For perspective, Wilson says judging is never a stagnant process because demands by the seedstock and commercial industries constantly change and evolve.

“Judges have to change with the times. If you keep getting asked to events, and want to be successful, you must be willing to adjust.”

She points out both industries have slowly moved the needle on what is desirable and what isn’t.

“What we think is the ideal and will never change, will change. It will always change and as judges, we need to be aware of this.”

Wilson believes just like the competition of the show ring, the commercial industry has its own version of competitive measurement. When producers can’t or won’t deliver what the markets demand, they’ll be passed by in favour of their neighbour who scores higher in the “competition”.

“To stay successful, if you’re a purebred or commercial operation, a judge or a byproduct of the industry, you must be cognizant of what the industry wants,” she said.

“And to make that reality, it’s always good to measure your product against somebody else’s. Get to know others in the industry and find what’s desirable. It’s a great place to start, but certainly not the only spot to be. Any place gathering people and ideas is good for the industry.”

Being in a position to network and market is an offshoot of showing and provides a learning experience plus an opportunity to interact with consumers walking through the competition venues.

According to Wilson, a crossover of what works in both worlds definitely exists with the meat and potatoes for most being the herd bull market.

“The purebred people have a critical job to supply new genetics to the industry. If we’re not delivering something to enhance, we’re not doing our job. In general, we do well with providing what the commercial market desires, and that branch of the industry puts a solid product on the consumer’s plates.”

An optimal avenue to meet this strict criterion is to measure against others for market demands.

Wilson said that in her extensive tours of purebred and commercial ranches, the factors remaining true of high quality are structure, muscling and do-ability, with a focus on foot quality and longevity.

“It all boils down to structural soundness. Then, do-ability because the quicker they move through the feedlot, the better. And finally, longevity, because it pays money at the end of the day. If we’re not constantly replacing bulls or females, there’s more money in our pockets.”

In both worlds, cattle must be able to travel or they’re not usable, and all judges worth their salt are critical of those that can’t, says Wilson. Cattle need to walk, move freely, track and travel properly with soundness. The confines of the ring help the judge get close enough to inspect feet, legs, shoulders, backs and hocks while animals walk, move, stop and pose.

“Structural soundness is huge and always has been,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t mean it has continually been a driver in the show ring, but good cattlemen have looked for this since the beginning of time. If we start with the foundation of structure, we won’t go too wrong.”

Both front and rear angles must be correct in the ring and pasture. Animals will travel better, maintain themselves easier and be less prone to lameness if they possess correct structure. Poor angles will cause inefficiency of movement leading to detrimental health concerns.

From there, she notes muscling must be present for the backgrounding and finishing processes. Beef animals should be blessed with visual carcass qualities including muscling because they are an absolute requirement in the commercial industry, and while this aspect is difficult to predict, Wilson believes they’re closing the gap on knowledge.

“It takes time to understand what works and what doesn’t. The industry has tools such as ultrasound to transmit real life, but we don’t have it in the ring. When we study a dam, a sire or a progeny group, we need them to tell us what we should know.”

She says bulls should look like bulls and females should look like females.

“If we have structure, muscling, do-ability and longevity, we won’t go wrong. Then add in masculinity in a male and femininity in a female.”

As well, poor behaviour and temperament should never be tolerated in the ring or on the farm and ranch site.

“It’s pretty hard to judge for, but there’s too many good cattle in the world to put up with poor temperament.”

Wilson said the perception of how show cattle don’t work in the real world is false. She sees the commercial industry as not that different from the show ring, although how they measure may be different. Commercial cows raising calves are measured by most pounds on the ground, how calves perform in the feedlots and yield and grade on the rail.

“There are all kinds of cattle in the world, some better than others and that’s always the way it’s going to be. Otherwise, you don’t have a top or a bottom. No matter how good they get, there’s always going to be a bottom. It might become pretty darn good, but someone still needs to measure it.”

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