There are those of us old enough to remember cattle grazing in nearly every Vermont pasture. Many children who grew up on family farms were bored, frustrated, or worn-out by the daily routines of farm life and eager to find other careers. There’s no way around it; raising livestock is hard work. But ask 18-year-old Tiffany Allen, of Concord, Vt., what she does for enjoyment after working her shift at Littleton Coin Company and she will tell you about Hope, a seven-month-old Ayrshire calf she is raising and training for the Caledonia County Fair’s 2016 cattle show.
In addition to her enthusiasm for raising and showing cattle, Tiffany wants to bring awareness to a rising issue of animal neglect and abuse.
“People often say cows are dumb and that they will always kick you if you walk behind them,” she says. “That’s a myth. Not all cows kick. Cows can be stubborn, but they can learn. People tend to treat cows badly because they think a stupid cow will only be a stupid cow, but I can train a calf to do a number of things for competition.”
This love for cattle and the belief that they develop relationships with their handlers is partially why Tiffany and her family are planning on showing 10 calves/heifers this year at the Caledonia County Fair. A heifer is a young female bovine that hasn’t had a calf but is old enough to come into heat; a “cow” is a female bovine that has had a calf.
Tiffany and her family board and train their calves and heifers at David Bedor’s tidy farm just of Route 122 in Lyndonville.
Upon arrival, there is the sound of calves bleating softly outside their hutches. There are also pigs wallowing through the muck of their pen to see if we brought any yummy morsels. Tiffany walks to the pen furthest from the doorway she just entered. She wears tall rubber boots, prepared to wade through manure if needed. She carries a harness. Her red and white Ayrshire, Hope, is familiar with her and doesn’t need much coaxing before Tiffany is able to slip the harness over the calf’s head and lead her out of the pen and into the barnyard.
Outside, Tiffany stops to talk. Her father, Joe Allen, his girlfriend, Melissa Stone, and her son, Nick Stone, begin walking heifers in a circle around the barnyard. Tiffany’s boyfriend, Brandon Call, also leads a calf.
Start. Stop. Stand still. Start. Stop. Stand still. It is evident the animals are learning these commands.
“We break them to walk on a lead,” Tiffany explains. “We teach them to walk slowly and how to walk backwards. It is important when we touch them a lot. Cattle stays calmer when they are used to touch. We have to touch them at the fair. The judges will also be running their hands up and down their bodies. The judges will be checking for straight backs and long, straight legs.”
She also describes how the cattle are trained to stand with their front two feet together and their back feet spread. She uses Hope’s feet to demonstrate a proper showing stance. “It’s also important that each calf looks calm and relaxed. The ears can’t be pointed back. A calm and relaxed calf will have her ears pointed forward.” She admits that training takes much patience and a lot of work: feeding, watering, walking, grooming and handling the cattle take a significant amount of time daily.
Showing cattle has been in her family for decades. Her great-grandmother, Rita Douse, showed cattle when she was a young girl. She continued to show at Caledonia, Barton and Lancaster fairs for as long as she was able. Tiffany’s father’s parents, Maynard and Dot Douse, owned and operated Riverside Farm in East Hardwick. They milked registered Jersey cows.
“Wanting to be around cattle, to farm and take care of livestock, has always been a part of who I am – the way my family is,” Tiffany’s father explains. “When Tiffany was just a baby, she’d be with me in the barn. She’d sit in a car seat or a stroller while I milked cows for Paul Person,” he says as he pulls the lead rope he is holding just enough for the heifer he is walking to feel his command and stop. “She showed calves when she was little (just three-years-old, actually), but then stopped for a bit,” he continues. “It’s a lot of work and she needed to want to do this in order to continue. She started showing again when she was 13.”
That was the year Tiffany’s Holstein calf, Molly, earned first and second place recognition. Since then, Tiffany has been hooked on the preparation and the showing – “all those events that lead to the actual competitions.” There is much to consider.
Currently, Tiffany and her family (she has three younger sisters) only show calves and heifers at the Caledonia Fair. She explains that “preparing for one competition takes a lot of work and being at the fair all week is hard on animals.”
Usually, the week after one fair ends another begins. There’s no break. No time to rest.
“Staying at the fair all week with the cattle can be exhausting,” she says. And like any of us, she appreciates free time to do other favorite summer events. She enjoys going to Bear Ridge to watch car racing. Family activities, cookouts, and birthday parties are also important summertime events.
“The more fairs we show at; the less time we have for anything else.”
Once the fair starts, she is there for the duration.
Typically, the Allen family brings a camper to the fairgrounds the day before the fair begins. The cattle are put in their stalls. The stalls are bedded with fresh sawdust. Tags and decorations for the stalls are made in advance.
“Usually we decorate with a theme,” Tiffany says. “Last year we did a fall theme. This year we are decorating with a farm theme: tractor fabric, corn stalks, and sunflowers.”
They also make a new educational poster every year.
“Educating people about these animals is important to me. I joke that I like animals more than people, but I pretty much do.”
Only purebred cattle can be shown. The cattle need to be up-to-date on their shots. Starting this year, they also need to be insured. A week before the fair starts, the cattle are full-body clipped. They are bathed the day before the fair and again, as often as necessary. Two types of halters need to be used. A rope halter is used to tie cattle in their stall; it doesn’t matter what color this halter is. A show halter is used during competition; the color usually matches the color of the breed (example: Ayrshire cattle are red and white and wear a red/reddish-brown harness). Shampoo, brushes, combs, hairspray, clippers and a hairdryer are also needed to prepare the cattle for competition. The people showing cattle have to wear all white clothing and brown shoes. Long hair has to be pulled back. Show-days are Thursday and Friday during the fair. Cattle are categorized according to birth date, class: Beef or Dairy, and the age and experience of the person who is showing the cattle.
“The Confirmation Class is all about what the animal looks like,” Tiffany says as she clearly articulates the difference between showmanship categories. “The Fitting and Showmanship Class is how the animal is presented and how well the handler works with the animal.” There is also a Herdsmanship Award. “Judges will come around the barns and check twice a day to make sure stalls are clean and cattle are washed daily. They chart cleanliness and update the chart daily for everyone to see.”
This sounds like a lot of upkeep and commitment. Tiffany admits it is. She also says it is important that someone is watching the cattle on a regular basis because heifers often come into heat during County Fair season.
“Cows are cows,” she says. “Even the females will mount each other. It’s important that little kids aren’t running up close to the cattle. If a cow is fixated on another cow in heat, it’s not going to let a little kid get in its way. Body mass is an issue. Even a well-trained person could have a hard time getting a cow to move or back down,” she says, adjusting the lead-rope in her hand as Hope starts fidgeting.
There are other challenges to raising and showing calves and heifers, Tiffany acknowledges. It can be difficult to find healthy and affordable calves to raise. Often, farms show as a family and don’t want to sell their calves. Pricing might also be an issue. Calves might sell from $5 - $1,500 in this area. The cost is often driven by who the sire/dam was and whether or not the calf is registered or unregistered. Finding a trailer to transport the calves could also be on obstacle and an extra expense.
Despite the time spent doing chores and training the animals, Tiffany is convinced that showing cattle will always be a part of her life.
“I do this because I was raised around it and I’ve always had a good understanding of animals and their behavior. It’s important to me to carry on this tradition. My great-grandmother and my grandmother showed cattle; and then my father; and now me – someday I want to teach my own children to love cattle and to be passionate about showing.”
Tiffany is quick to reiterate her passionate focus on livestock. She admits that as a recent high school graduate, she is not certain about what career paths she will choose, but that she is certain she would like to work with animals and possibly become a vet technician or work in a veterinarian’s office.
“Granted, I don’t live on a farm,” she admits, “but I can understand where people who gave up farming were coming from when they got burned out. This is only my hobby and it’s a lot of work. Full-time farming is much more work. That’s why we don’t milk cows and we only show calves and heifers. It puts a lot of stress on animals to take them away from their barnyards and to board them on fairgrounds. The farmers also lose money when they take a milking cow off their farm for the week: milk production can go down and the fair gets to keep whatever milk a cow gives (the Dairy Association makes cheese curds and ice cream with this milk to sell at the fair). But all in all, there’s a lot of bonding and pride that takes place in families who show cattle. We learn to listen to animals and meet their needs. I hope to continue showing cattle as long as I possibly can.”