Another year has gone by, and once again we are looking back and reflecting on the truth contained in the 2 000-year-old phrase by Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun. And in the livestock industry, the issue remains – to show or not to show. This has been the subject of numerous discussions, conflict and even confrontation for many years. Some breeders’ societies and breeders are in favour of shows, and others are against it.

To understand shows, one needs to go back in history. There was a time when there was no animal performance recording and the subjective appraisal of animals was the only way of separating good animals from poor ones.

Since the establishment of breeds, animals have been judged subjectively based on a set breed standard, and breed champions are chosen as the best example of what an animal of a relevant breed should look like. It is more or less how shows have operated over the past 200 years. A show champion usually is the most expensive animal in the breed and his/her progeny therefore has more value.

A marketing platform

In essence, animals are judged subjectively with the eye to make a distinction, with the possibility that another judge gives another outcome. Shows are the marketing platforms of breeders and usually the highlight of the livestock social calendar. Animals are halter trained and led around the ring in front of an audience.

Animals are exhibited by their handlers and they must, as the saying goes, put their best foot forward in a bid to impress the judges. Many bad practices have unfortunately arisen, especially in the dairy industry and most notably in the United States, which enable people to better show off their animals. This ranges from the creative application of black polish and white lime to mislead a judge’s eye, to toothpicks to straighten skew teats!

As performance data became more readily available, more breeders are starting to rather use the data to identify excellent individuals within breeds. The objective measurement of economically relevant traits such as reproduction, growth and calving ease have started to play a bigger role than subjective show judging. This is reflected in animals with good performance data fetching better prices based than show champions.

The anti-show prophet

In South Africa Prof Jan Bonsma was a well-known anti-show prophet. The Bonsmara, which is named after him, is the biggest breed in South Africa, and after 50 years still do not participate in shows. If one counts the number of animals and shows, then the Brahman, Simmentaler, Simbra and Limousin are the major beef breeds that do show.

Approximately two thirds of the registered breeds in South Africa take part in shows. The biggest among the third that does not participate, are the Bonsmara, Nguni, Beefmaster and Brangus. In the case of small stock things are slightly different. Approximately half of the 20 registered sheep breeds do show, with the Merino, Dorper and SA Mutton Merino the most prominent. The Dohne Merino and Meatmaster are the two biggest sheep breeds in South Africa that do not show.

Some trends have changed, such as non-halter trained animals forming an ever-increasing part of show participants. Most breeds that take part in shows also take part in performance recording, and performance data has become the norm when marketing animals, even if they do show.

Finding a balance

If livestock shows want to remain relevant, then it is imperative that a balance is found between subjective judging and objective measuring. To have an ‘eye’ for a good animal certainly has value and is something that should be developed. And simply ignoring the treasure trove of data provided by modern technology is stupid.

The performance class shows hosted by SA Stud Book, the Agricultural Research Council and Breedplan have unlocked a new dimension that may well become the future of shows. In this case, the performance data of the animal is the qualifying norm.

Ultimately only animals that have reached a certain standard with their performance data, qualify to be judged subjectively in the ring. This means the winner is an animal with a good balance between its figures and appearance. We have the opportunity to create the best of both worlds, so let us use it in balance. – Albert Loubser, Stockfarm