Showing cattle can be hereditary. Sue Stream got it from her kids.
We caught up with Stream, from Chariton, Iowa, at the conclusion of the 2008 North American International Livestock Exposition at Louisville. She said she did pretty well with one reserve division champion, and “we stood high in all of our classes, and that was good.”
Stream has won 20 national titles over the last five years, in seven breeds. When asked how many times she shows a year, she says, “That’s not fair,” and laughs. “Right now, I’m only showing at the major shows,” naming the North American along with the National Stock Show at Denver and Kansas City’s American Royal. “When the girls were younger and in the junior shows,” she says, “we would just do a lot of shows in Iowa, Jackpot Shows, and the State Fair, and Winter Beef Expo and Summer Beef Expo, up to 30-35 of the little Jackpot Shows; we would show almost every weekend.”
Stream and her dentist husband Rodney both came from farming backgrounds and wanted their daughters, Lisa and Sarah, to learn the lessons that farming brings. So she started the kids off with a 4-H project showing Angus heifers; they loved it and wanted to show more.
It escalated from Angus shows to Iowa Junior Beef Breeds because the girls needed to show other breeds if they wanted to accumulate enough points to win the state title. For four years, Stream says, they showed every weekend, and then she took some of the better cattle herself to the Royal and to Louisville. She had showed as a kid, but had never progressed beyond county fairs, so this was a new experience. “I brushed my cattle dry,” she recalls, “and so I had to learn how to use the blow dryer. And of course the cattle were all different, because everything is fashion, the types of cattle change, and the way you present them in the arena changes, so we had to learn how to clip and fit all over again.”
Stream says the way you wash and condition the cattle’s hair is important. “You have to brush the legs,” she says, “to get the hair to come up; if you don’t do that on a daily basis with your animal, it really shows in the show ring. Do you want that hair to stand out, and what they call ‘pop’?” She describes it as looking like a butch haircut, and says it’s functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. “If your calf has a little flaw here or a little flaw there, you can cover it up with hair sometimes.”
Working as a team, the Streams have prepping their animals down to a science. Although Sue estimates it takes an hour for one person to wash and blow dry a single animal, she and her daughter stepped up the efficiency on the nine animals they showed at Louisville. “She could wash a calf in eight minutes,” Stream says, “and then it’d probably take about 15-20 minutes to thoroughly, thoroughly blow dry a cow, so it’d take us 2 ½-3 hours to get everything really cleaned up.”
But, obviously, there’s a lot more to it than grooming, and Stream details what she looks for in a show animal. Number one is soundness, and she disqualifies an animal that can’t walk straight. “If their feet cross over in the front or the back,” she says, “then that’s not good, because they have structural problems in their hips.”
There’s also phenotype; she wants the animal to have a clean front and a straight topline, the things you can just tell from looking. Stream likens it to hanging a piece of wallpaper, “It’s got to be straight at the top, and your wall has to be straight, or it’s going to end up crooked.” In her ten years of showing, Stream says, judges have also come to prefer a thinner body. “We used to have to have 7 and 8 frame cattle,” says Stream, referring to the size scale used in judging cattle, “and now the show scene is looking for more of a 6 ½ framed animal, which makes a little bit more sense from the feed program.”
The animals have definitely changed over the years, says Chris Skaggs. The Texas A&M professor of animal science has spent a good portion of his career working with young livestock exhibitors and collegiate livestock judging teams. He also still finds the time to judge 15 shows a year himself. It was also a family affair for him; his father was an agricultural science teacher. Skaggs showed livestock in 4-H and FFA and was on the livestock and horse judging teams as an undergraduate at Texas Tech.
Skaggs says show cattle have progressed along with the commercial industry. The introduction of Continental breeds in the 70’s brought more emphasis on growth and extreme muscularity. But now, he says, exhibitors seek cattle that are “probably not as big framed, but they certainly have the growth performance built into their pedigrees so that they grow fast and rapidly and can reach a market end point rather quickly”. Over the last few years, he adds, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of change in those preferred characteristics.
In addition to the apparent traits, carcass composition, structural correctness in market animals and that soundness of physique in breeding stock, Skaggs says judges also look at Expected Progeny Differences or EPD’s. “A lot of shows use genetic estimates along with judging,” he says, “so you’ll use those additionally in your selection criteria.” This leads to the question of whether a judge should put more weight on an animal’s present condition, or on its potential. Although Skaggs says, “They have to be shown in an ideal body condition, I think that always helps,” he points out the judges are again mirroring industry, since commercial ranchers want EPD’s to be available on bulls and heifers.
To what extent does the exhibitor’s performance influence the judge? Skaggs says, “I think it helps just to present the animal in a positive manner and show off their strengths. I think it’s just easier for the judge to see the animals, if the exhibitor does a nice job of presenting the animals.” Sue Stream says she instructed her daughters to think about the judge. “When you meet somebody,” she points out, “you don’t frown at them, you don’t ignore them, you give them a smile, and nod your head. When you enter that ring,you make eye contact with your judge, smile, nod and move on. You have to have a pleasant look on your face, because you are enjoying it, its way too hard of work, not to enjoy it.”
And the Streams also pay attention to what the judge has to say. When other exhibitors wonder how Sue’s daughters have been so successful in so many different breeds; they’re told it’s because the judge’s comments resonate. When they’re told about a trait that is not desirable in a heifer, “They keep looking at that animal after that show, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, the shoulder is too straight,’ or whatever criticism that judge has. And so you just automatically say, ‘I’m never going to show another calf that has that problem’.”
Skaggs says the mix of exhibitors at cattle shows has remained fairly constant over time; although the numbers at open shows are likely declining due to the expense, he says, “It’s a form of advertising, so I think they still utilize it.” Meanwhile, participation in the youth shows in Texas remains strong. As advisor to the Texas A&M judging team, he says many of his students grew up showing livestock. “When they become judges themselves,” he says, “they like to give back to the industry that’s been so good to them, so they like to work with the youth; they like to communicate with them and just have that interaction, which I think is real positive.”
They’re also showing young exhibitors through example that hard work and a positive attitude can help guide them to a career in the industry. Skaggs says companies like to hire students who have been through the collegiate judging experience, because it teaches them such skills as decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to present ideas clearly and concisely. “All of those attributes are very much in demand by industry today,” he says. “They like people that can make decisions based on fact, and come up with an answer that they can defend.”
You can get more enjoyment from the hard work of showing if you can make money from it. Stream laughs and says, “I haven’t seen that yet,” but believes the time is coming. The Streams (streamcattle.com) just held their second annual treaty sale; although returns were down, she blames the election; Stream says after keeping show cattle as pets for years, she’s learning how to market them. And where most marketers just flush their best cows, Stream says she’s flushing her national champion heifers to national champion bulls; “Now,” she says, “I can come back and see a profit on my investment ten years ago.”
But money, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, is not the only thing. Lisa and Sarah are back from college, and want to keep raising and showing cattle. Mom says, “They love it, they’re good at it, and we’ve had a lot of success. I think the key of it is that you have to love it. We all laugh in the cattle industry that cattle are an addiction…and there’s no ’12-Step Process’.”