The Value of Competition

John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

It is that time of year where the county and state fair season is in full swing in Ohio and around the country. Showing cattle on the county, state, or national level is a tradition for many families as several generations have participated in the show ring “experience” to varying degrees. I am sure that many of you have vivid memories of animals shown and shows attended over the years. As my family returned home from Kansas City, MO last week after participating in the National Junior Angus Show, I started to consider the reasons why families invest considerable time and resources to show cattle.

As a parent and an Extension Educator, I believe there are several positive aspects associated with showing beef cattle. First and foremost, it should be a learning experience for the youth member as to how to properly manage a beef animal. Husbandry skills relating to nutrition, health, reproduction, selection, housing, marketing, etc. should be acquired by carrying a 4-H or FFA beef project. Teaching responsibility and establishing a solid work ethic are also major benefits associated with a beef project. I realize that a large number of the youth members taking beef projects today probably will not be directly involved in the beef industry through their careers as adults. However, the lessons learned through project work can translate very well to whatever career path is chosen in the future.

Showing cattle can be a great family experience as well. Many families manage their project animals as a group effort and build teamwork by working together. Friends and acquaintances are made by showing cattle over the years. Many families treat shows as vacations as they get to travel to many different parts of the country exhibiting their animals.

The previously mentioned aspects of showing cattle provide great personal benefits to those involved. However, it is my opinion that one of the more compelling reasons that people decide to show cattle is competition. Why does anyone choose to participate in any type of competition whether it is athletics, academics, a job promotion, or even fantasy football? I would contend that is simply human nature to satisfy some level of competitive desires to be recognized for achieving a specific goal or a level of excellence at whatever you do.

Fairs and shows have grown to the point where there is much more involved with a beef project than just taking an animal into the show ring. Showmanship has always been a part of the show that involves the junior member to a great degree. In recent years, we have many more avenues available to the junior member where the individual can be involved in competitions that are not as dependent on the animal. Skillathons and quality assurance contests are commonly available at the county and state level. National breed association shows have a wide variety of contests ranging from public speaking, quiz bowls, team sales, photography, posters, etc. to satisfy your competitive desires.

Competition can be either beneficial or harmful depending on the situation. I would contend that a competitive event that is kept in its proper perspective can be very healthy. The show ring in its purest form gives the exhibitor a chance to compare their ability to select and care for animal against others. While everybody can find motivation from different sources, success or failure in competition can provide a powerful stimulus to make improvements. It is easy to remember the times that you won a class or a championship and the desire to recreate those memories. Many of us can also remember a steer that didn’t reach ideal market weight, a heifer that didn’t have enough weight per day of age, or an animal that simply lacked the proper conformation to be competitive. It is only human nature to want to make improvements to do better the next time around.

There is no question that winning can be a powerful motivator. Trophies, banners, purple ribbons, and pictures can drive people to devote significant amounts of time and resources to reap those awards. There will always be debate about the amount of money that people are willing to spend on animals to show. Right or wrong, I am not aware of a “salary cap” for show animals unless you live in a county where they have a “pool or draw” class. Also, there are folks that are simply willing to work harder with the management of their animals. I don’t think you should begrudge someone’s success if they spent twice the amount of time in the barn than you did working their animals.

Yet, competition can be taken to extremes to the point where people are willing to break rules or they lose sight of the show ring’s relevance to the beef industry. We hope that that the “win at all costs” mentality is kept to a bare minimum but unfortunately, it probably will always be around whether we like it or not. Do not underestimate the damage that a “show scandal” can do to harm the perception of the show ring within the beef industry. More importantly, consider the damage that can be done to the entire beef industry in the potential loss of trust from the consumer.

A competitive exhibitor understands that there are many opportunities in the show ring. Ribbons, trophies, banners, and cash awards may fuel our competitive desires but the knowledge gained, responsibility, work ethic, leadership, and friendships gained are even more important. While the individual rewards can be significant, do not underestimate the contributions that you as an exhibitor can make to the entire beef industry. A cow-calf producer or a feedlot operator is probably not too concerned as to how you placed at your last show. However, they will be very curious as to how you represented the beef industry to the public.