Inside the Strangely Competitive World of Cow Beauty Pageants

Champions’ Day at the Royal Cornwall Show is a key summer event in the south west of England. Last year, 100,000 people visited over three days to find out which cow would be crowned supreme breed champion.

Jun 15 2016, 3:23pm

It's just after half eight in the morning and 500 bulls, cows, and heifers are lined up having their hair done. A Hereford—reddy-brown with a white head and belly—is having his coat fluffed with a hoover. A black-and-white Holstein is brushed over and over by her owners, their eyes hunting for blemishes. A smaller Jersey stands ready. Earlier this morning, her owner clipped off downy hair and rubbed her udder with baby oil.

A Holstein cow gets a pre-ring brush down at the Royal Cornwall Show. All photos by the author.

At nine, a shout comes for the public to leave: the contest is about to begin.

It is Champions' Day at the Royal Cornwall Show, the main summer event in the far south west of England. Last year, 100,000 people visited over three days, many coming for the agricultural centrepiece: the livestock competition. Farmers from across the region bring their best animals—cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, goats, and poultry—for a shot at the top prize.

Yesterday, the breed champions were decided and today, they fight to be supreme champion.

Handlers lead beef cattle around the ring.

If you've never seen a bovine beauty contest, this is what happens. The cow's owner, wearing a white coat, leads the animal into the ring on a halter. A judge, often flown in for the event, stands suited in the middle, as cows representing each breed are led in a circle. He (it is, almost always, a man) examines the animals, with special focus on their rear ends. For the first few categories, the judge asks the handlers to line up the cows in prize order, before handing out rosettes and cups.

But for the overall winner, the excitement is ramped up.

Rosettes on offer at the Royal Cornwall Show.

"The animal that our judge touches on the back is the supreme dairy animal of 2016," the compere-for-the-day, an auctioneer, whispers into his microphone. The judge claps his hands above his head, urging the audience to join in, like a long jumper at the start of his run-up. He teases, moving back and forth, before finally slapping the Holstein on her arse.

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"This cow has got better and better as the day has gone on," the judge tells the ring. "She's filled her udder, she's carried her milk and, to my mind, she's quite a clear champion."

The victor, the snappily named Davlea Goldwyn Pledge 2, is decked out in a sash. Photographers from the local and farming press sweep in for pictures.

Dairy judge Ken Proctor checks the cows' rear ends.

This spectacle is stuffed with meaning for the people who take part. Back in the barn, Cornish farmer Michael Colwell explains the business angle. His Jerseys picked up 25 rosettes this year, including reserve overall champion.

"It's about getting your name out there," he tells me. "When you come to sell animals, people recognise the name and pay extra for them."

That money is significant. Colwell sold a dozen cows in July 2015 that averaged £1,500 each—£500 more than other cows in the sale. He says the "holy grail" is breeding a perfect bull that sells thousands of straws of semen for artificial insemination. Last year, a bull in the north of England sold for a world record of £147,000.

A handler keeps his sheep close.

But Colwell says his motives are not purely commercial. His parents started showing pedigree Jerseys 40 years ago, and he, his wife, and young kids have carried on the tradition.

There's heritage for the cows, too. Four of those Colwell is showing today are granddaughters of a two-time supreme champion. These ladies are the stars of the herd.

"Some of the cows positively enjoy being up here," Colwell says. "They like being waited on hand and foot."

The winners pose for photographs by the farming press.

The farmers in the shed all seem to get on. Friends and family walk up to congratulate Colwell on his success. Most people see each other at several shows throughout the summer, he explains.

"It is a hell of a hard work. But we just come here for all the camaraderie and all the chitchat. And then beating people, I like that as well, especially the Holsteins."

That competitiveness, beneath the chumminess, is fierce. I've read about cases of cheating. At last month's Devon County Show, one exhibitor was thrown out and stripped of her titles after artificially colouring her sheep (a quite normal practice, I'm told, but the organisers decided to clamp down). In 2013, two dairy cattle at the Great Yorkshire Show tested positively for a performance-enhancing substance. In the past, farmers have illegally glued the teats on udders, to keep them swollen and full of milk.

A Hereford cow has his hair fluffed by a hoover.

Everyone I ask in Cornwall says none of that happens here. I want a referee, so find one of the cattle judges, Danny Wyllie, who oversees the beef competition. He mentions another possible problem: the judges themselves.

"I am on seven different breed judging panels and I'm not biased," Wyllie says. "A good few judges, they lean towards their own breed, every time."

I have another question: when all these cattle look so different, how do you judge between them?

"You should know every breed's characteristics and how good they represent that breed," Wyllie says. "But the first thing is mobility. There is a lot of cattle at this day and age that are more bothered about getting fancy weights than they are about keeping the animal correct and mobile."

The show's cattle ring.

Armed with my basic knowledge, I leave the cattle lines for the rest of the show. The roads between the arenas pull you out of the livestock bubble. More than a thousand trade stands hawk everything from Barbours to work boots to boarding school places. There's a vintage fun fair, a Battle of the Somme reenactment, and a local troupe singing numbers from The Lion King. In a beekeeping tent, I learn that each insect will only produce half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Among the pigeon fanciers, I hear about a bird that won the animal Victoria Cross for returning a message from Denmark.

But livestock are the show's soul. Just past the sheep-shearing stage (competitors race against the clock, narrated by a commentator), I find Matt Darke with a group of young farmers from Devon. After a winning morning, he is preparing for the Grand Parade, a procession of all the prize-winning animals.

Aged 23, Darke is the fourth generation of his family to show Devon and Cornwall Longwools, an unusual sheep breed with a coat that flops over the eyes.

Matt Darke holds his Devon and Cornwall Longwool in the Grand Parade.

When I ask why he likes showing, he starts by joking: "Well, we get here on the Wednesday, and then we start drinking," before adding that, inside and outside the ale tent, showing is a good way of keeping in contact with people and getting off the farm. But Darke insists the fun needs work in the build up.

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"It's years really. It all starts with the breeding of the individual sheep," he says. "Then it goes into feeding and making sure they are in show condition and looking their very best. It doesn't happen overnight."

Farmers, even the young ones, don't come to shows for the money. The best sheep this year will get just £75 and the best bull or cow £275. Farmers enter these contests for the pride—but not in a glib, empty sense. They want to compete, to show that they're doing a better job breeding than their neighbour or friend or rival from a far-off county.

Jersey cows enjoying a post-show snack and lie-down.

"If you are aiming to get on the top bill, there is a lot of money and a lot of time and effort that goes into it," Darke explains. "But you do it all for a reason: trying to get that top prize."

The show programme contains a line I missed when flicking through earlier in the day. The Royal Cornwall has been running since 1793. Even though it has become less agricultural over time, the founding principle has stayed the same: to help the county's farmers "improve through competition."

Perhaps the brushing and the baby oil does have a noble goal, after all.