GREENWICH, N.Y. — Getting your dairy cow show ring ready takes time and practice. Not everyone can fit a cow to be show ring ready and that is okay. That’s what they make fitters for! However, if you want your cow to stand out in the ring like a unicorn (or a uni-cow), then you need to learn how to properly fit your dairy cattle.
A little girl’s dream for a unicorn got us thinking about how cows are fit the way they are for shows, and how that has changed so much over the years. Read on to learn more about the “famous” unicorn (uni-cow) as well as tips about dairy cattle fitting that will make your cow wow the judges.
Dairy Cow Unicorn?
Little Maddie wanted nothing more for her 3rd birthday than a white unicorn. With some birthday magic, her mom and aunts made that wish come true. Austin the “unicow” was a great sport as she got her tail and neck dyed pretty colors and then covered in sparkles. Complete with a sparkle halter and a beautiful horn, the unicorn put a huge smile on little Maddie’s face and gave her a memory she will surely never forget.
While creating that unicorn magic, it got us thinking about how we present our cows in the ring. What would happen if we brought a white cow with a purple, sparkle tail into the ring? Why don’t we add sparkles and pretty colors to our cows as we parade them through the ring?
We laugh now at the thought of doing that, but there have been some crazy fitting trends throughout the years. How we present our dairy cows in the show ring is constantly evolving as new tips and tricks become the norm. Who’s to say sparkly tails are not the way of the future?
The Evolution of Dairy Cow Fitting
How a cow was fit to go in the ring 50 years ago differs from how we do it today. For example, there was a time not that long ago when you always shaved the belly hair off whether you were showing a heifer or a cow. Belly hair was not commonly left on animals.
There also used to be a trend where you would shave the topline off of your cow before the show so that it would grow back in fuller form for the show. Nowadays, the thought of shaving too close to the topline is scary!
If you believe it, years ago people only clipped the heads and front shoulders of cows. They didn’t even body clip the animal, and now we do it with tight blades! As dairy cows continue to evolve, so does the way we show them. Hence why it is so important to keep up with the changing trends.
How To Clip Dairy Cows
Clipping your dairy cow correctly can be a tricky endeavor. It takes a lot of patience and practice to get it right. To help you have your cow looking its absolute best in front of the judge, we talked to Dalton Freeman from Bremen, Indiana. Dalton fits for Vierra Dairy along with a multitude of other farms. He had the pleasure of fitting Rivendale VIP Eloise, the Grand Champion of the jersey show at the World Dairy Expo in 2022.
Dalton says that when clipping your cow, cross cutting the hair works the best. By doing so, you will get the most even-looking coat without leaving any patches or skippers of hair. He personally likes to use Andis or Heiniger clippers with ground-down 84AU standard Oster blades. You can grind your own blades, or you can buy them from people like Tim Sollman. Tim offers 4 different types of ground-down blades: Holstein and Jersey heifer, and Holstein and Jersey cow.
We understand that not everyone can clip with ground-down blades. For those of you who cannot grind your own or have the resources to buy them, you can use regular blades on your cow as well. The fit just won’t be as tight.
For heads and legs, the Udder Chaos Show Team likes to use Wahl Bravura clippers that have adjustable blade lengths. Sometimes, we will even use these clippers set to a tighter setting to clip the entire body of some of our cows. The fact that these clippers are wireless, rechargeable, and can be changed to various blade lengths without having to switch the blade, makes them very convenient.
First Time Clipping
If it is your first time clipping the animal, make sure the animal is clean so that you do not ruin your clipper blades. If you don’t have time to wash the animal before, use a curry comb to get all the big clumps of dirt out of the coat. If you do wash the animal beforehand, make sure the coat is completely dry before you begin clipping otherwise you will ruin your blades.
Shaping The Belly Hair
When clipping a heifer, you want to make sure you leave belly hair to add depth to your animal. Dalton says that “a belly should be kind of an oval shape.” You will want to blow the belly hair up with a blower (Rusk Speed Freaks are the best blowers in his opinion) to start the process.
Once the hair is blown up, follow the natural contour of the belly and end it at the front elbow. Do the same to the other side of the cow, making sure both sides are even. Afterward, you can trim any longer straggle hairs down to make it appear more even underneath.
How to Do a Topline on a Dairy Cow
When carving out the topline, Dalton says to start at the tail head and work your way toward the cow’s head. Once you reach the swirl in her topline, start from the neck and work back towards the swirl again. Be sure to blend the hair where the opposite directions meet. Toplines cannot be more than 1.5 inches tall.
Carving out a topline takes a steady hand and lots of practice. We highly recommend practicing on your cows a long time before the show so that there is time for hair to grow back if you make a mistake your first time.
When doing the top line for the show, Dalton likes to use Denman topline brushes and Got 2b Glued or Aussie Hairspray as replacements for Clear Magic. Clear Magic is the primary choice though, but as most of us are aware, it is difficult to get your hands on sometimes.
More Topline Tips
To help you master the topline, we also took tips from Patty Davis. She says that a topline starts a couple of inches down the tail depending on the size of the animal. A Jersey March calf will start about an inch down the tail whereas a Holstein-aged cow can start about 4 inches down the tail.
The top line extends from the tail to about a ⅓ of the way up the neck if the neck is defined as the front of the shoulder to the back of the poll. A short-necked animal will have the topline go less into the neck so that it makes the neck look longer.
The widest a topline should be is the width of the growth bone (the lowest point on a cow’s back in front of the pins). The top line is to make the cow’s back look straight. It will be high at some points and low at others to correct any weaknesses in the cow’s back. There should be a uniform straight line from front to back on either side of the top line as it follows the bone structure of the cow with the side of the blade.
The top line should also look like a wedge that is either pointy at the top or flat. You will want the topline to be flatter at the top for an extremely dairy animal and pointier for a fatter animal to make it look more dairy.
Making Dairy Ribs Pop
We have all seen people carve ribs (also known as rib peeling) well, and people carve ribs poorly. Not everyone will carve out the ribs on their dairy cow because it can be very tricky to do right. However, when done correctly, it can really make the ribs pop and give your cow that little edge it may need to get bumped up in the class.
There are about 6 different ways to do ribs. It depends on your skill level as a fitter and how tight of a blade was used to clip the cow, to begin with. We talked to Patty Davis about peeling ribs, and she wanted to note that not every cow should have its ribs done. If you peel ribs on a tight-ribbed cow, all it does is emphasize how tight-ribbed she is, which is not something you want to do.
Dalton likes to use a 50-blade with most of the teeth cut off to do the ribs. He also notes that it is a very difficult process to do. Therefore, we suggest talking with an established fitter and having them show you in person how to do the ribs. Since they are so difficult to master, this will be the easiest way to start learning the process.
If you want to attempt ribs on your own, Patty suggests never going up on the ribs with the clipper. Instead, lightly back-drag with the corner of a blade (with small blade clippers like you use to clip an udder) down the ribs. If you are fitting for a larger show with a big show ring, peel the ribs more prominently so the judge can see them from the center of the ring. If you are peeling ribs for a small county fair, don’t peel as extremely because the judge will be closer to the cow.
Dairy Show Ring Preparation
Clipping your cow isn’t enough to make it stand out in the ring. You need to do some pre-ring preparation to really make her stand out in the lineup.
You will want to start by brushing your cow to get any hay or dirt off her. Then spray some Revive on her and wipe it down with a paper towel. Afterward, spray her down with something to make her shine. The Udder Chaos show team likes to use Final Mist to add a little shine to their cows but there are other shine options.
Be sure to fluff her tail with a tail comb and hairspray. Tease the hair out to make it nice and fluffy like she’s a girl from the ’80s. Then make sure you add some hoof polish to make her feet pop against the sawdust in the ring. Also, ensure her ears are clean by cleaning them with a baby wipe.
If you are showing a milk cow, spray its udder with alcohol and wipe it down with a paper towel. Afterward, rub on some gelled baby oil to make it really pop. The oilier and shinier the udder is, the better it looks in the show ring.
A Few Extra Fitting Tips
When clipping the udder of your cow, you will want to spray Revive first. This will make the hair stand up and make it easier to clip. Sizes of 40 or 50 blades work best on udders matched with revive to get a nice close fit that will make the udder pop once it is shined up.
To keep yourself hair free while clipping, consider investing in a lightweight clipping jacket and some lightweight coveralls. Trust us, you will be less itchy and the whole process will be more enjoyable. Windbreakers work well since they are lightweight and breathable for those hot summer shows.
Finally, be sure you clip your animal no more than 3 days before the show so that the hair doesn’t start to grow back in before you have the chance to carve out the top line. The hair will grow back quickly, not only making them less tightly fit but also making it hard to match the blade size to touch up the topline.
Pre- and Post-Fitting Tips
Consider washing your animal in cold water frequently to encourage hair growth. The more hair you have to work with, the easier it will be to fit the animal. Also, the more you wash your animal, the whiter and cleaner it will be (so be sure to wash your showmanship animal often).
After you wash your animals, make sure you return them to a well-ventilated barn. Fans help keep the animal cool and encourage hair growth. You should also be combing the topline to train the hair. Some fitters suggest combing it down flat to the animal so that it will fluff perfectly up once it is dry.
Once your animal is clipped, try not to put them out in direct sunlight for extended time periods. Especially if your animal is white or light colored, it can become sunburned in prolonged exposure to sunlight. If they do get sunburned, you can put revive on them to help them heal.
Choosing the Right Cow Halter
The halter choice is not really part of fitting your animal for the show, but it is an important aspect of making her look her best. You want to use a halter that is not too big or too small for your animal. It should fit nicely below her eyes and tight to her face on the sides.
The halter should also be the right color for your animal. Using a brown halter on a Holstein doesn’t look good in your show ring pictures, nor will it help you do good in dairy showmanship. Stick with colors that go well with your animal’s coat.
Get Your Cow Show-Ring Ready
There is a lot that goes into getting your cow show ring ready. Every cow needs to be clipped differently depending on its faults. With an ever-evolving fitting style to keep up with, it is important to stay up to date with changing trends. Who knows, maybe sparkles and dyed tails will be the way of the future!
These tips should help you learn the basics of dairy cattle fitting. At the end of the day, it all comes down to patience and practice. The more you practice clipping and preparing your animal for the show, the better you will get at it. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t go well the first time around. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Be sure to check back next week for our next article in the Udder Chaos column to learn more about all things show cows.
Lila Nolan is a dairy farmer in White Creek, NY who works at Morning Ag Clips. She avidly attends dairy shows and draws from those experiences to write about the Udder Chaos that occurs.