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4-H Dairy Calf Club Projects

Updated on March 7, 2015
Successful day for this heifer.
Successful day for this heifer. | Source

Joining a 4-H Dairy Calf Club

Joining a 4-H Dairy Calf Club and preparing a dairy calf for show is a great learning experience. Although there is a fair bit of work involved, there are also many rewards, as you will get the chance to learn about dairy cattle and dairy farming, and get to bond with your own project calf.

Newborn Milking Shorthorn heifer.
Newborn Milking Shorthorn heifer. | Source

Selecting a Calf

Most 4-H Dairy Projects require you to select a specific calf to work with for the duration of the project. Different age categories are usually available. Be aware of these categories when you choose your calf. It’s ideal to pick a calf that is near the top of its age group. For instance, if you are choosing a calf for the ‘Senior Heifer’ class, and plan to show her in 2015, you’ll be able to pick a calf that was born between September 1, 2014 and November 30, 2014. Try to pick a calf that is as close to September 1st as possible. If you pick a November calf, she may not grow big enough to compete with the older calves. On the other hand, choosing an extremely well grown calf that is young for its class may give you a competitive advantage.

Besides size and age, look for a calf that has good conformation. Conformation is a big subject, and will be covered in another article, but you are basically looking for the ‘ideal’ dairy animal who is feminine, but also strong enough to later have many calves, and be a good milk producer in a dairy herd. A good temperament is also important for a 4-H Project, especially if you are small, or new to showing calves.

Once you have chosen your calf, be sure to fill out all the necessary paperwork for her, so she is eligible for any opportunities you might want to take her to down the road. You might be able to show at your local club show, but you will be disqualified from any regional events if you don’t submit the right forms. Ask your leader for help with this if you are unsure.

Early Training

You will need to spend a fair bit of time getting to know your calf, and teaching her to be comfortable around you. Ideally, use a soft rope halter, and tie her to a solid object, such as a wall with a tie-ring once a day. Make sure she is tied with a quick release knot, and that whatever she is tied to is strong enough to hold her. Again, a wall, or sturdy fence post is ideal. Make sure the area around her is safe because she might fight the rope the first few times you tie her up and could injure herself on sharp objects or clutter. Stay with her while she is tied in case she throws herself and you need to untie her quickly. Use this time to talk to her, and brush her.

Once she is used to standing quietly, start taking her for short walks. Ideally, keep her in an enclosed area, like a pen, or inside the barn because she may try to run away from you. Use a rope halter for early halter training. Teach your calf to walk slowly, with her head up. You will be walking backwards while you show her, so practice this right from the beginning. Place your left hand in the halter and use your right hand on her point of shoulder if she pushes too much.

Teach her to set up and stand quietly. When she is standing, the leg closest to the judge should always be further back then the leg away from the judge. This will make her appear longer, which is desirable. Observe your calf so you know where her weak points are and can correct them in the ring. If she tends to be weak over her loin, you can reach under her belly and rub her so she holds her back up better. The judge will be watching for tricks like this.

Once you calf leads well with a rope halter, transition her to a leather halter and chain lead. Some calves transition easily, others take some time to get used to the chain under their chin. Be patient and persistent and your calf will learn to accept the leather halter too.

Young calf getting used to being tied with a rope halter. This is the first step in training a 4-H Calf.
Young calf getting used to being tied with a rope halter. This is the first step in training a 4-H Calf. | Source

Feeding

Feed your calf a good quality diet so she grows big and strong. If she is very young, and still drinking milk, give her milk, but be sure to offer her calf starter as soon as possible. The quicker she gets used to eating calf starter (an 18% ration is best), the better she will grow. Try putting a small handful of starter in her mouth just after she has her milk and is still acting hungry. Offer unlimited clean water, and start offering good quality hay once she is close to weaning.

At some point, well before starting the show season, start offering your calf soaked beet pulp. Start by mixing a small amount of her regular grain ration with a small amount of beet pulp. Helping her acquire a taste for beet pulp will help her look much better on show day (more on this later).

Washing

You will want to wash your calf several times before the show. Ideally she should be kept in a very clean, well bedded pen so she stays as clean as possible, but calves are calves and she is sure to get dirty eventually. If possible, wash her with warm, or cool water. Don’t use hot water, or ice cold water. Use either a livestock soap, or dish soap to lather the calf. To save soap, and make it easier to rinse out, you can put a small amount in a pail and add warm water to make lots of suds. Be careful you don’t get water in the calf’s eyes or ears, but make sure you remember to wipe off her ear tags with a cloth. Scrub the calf’s body with a soft bristle brush, then rinse her until all the soap is gone. Any soap left in the hair will cause dandruff. As a good conditioner, you can pour some vinegar into a pail, then fill the remainder of the pail with warm water. Dump this over the calf’s back from front to back. This will prevent dandruff and be a good hair tonic.

Clipping

Clip your calf early on in the season. Clipping is a task that a lot of people are afraid of, because they are worried they’ll make their calf look bad. If you start early in the year, there will be plenty of time for the hair to grow back if you make a mistake. Use large animals clippers for the calf’s body. You can also use them on the head and legs, but many people find that a small set of clippers, such as an Oster A5 or Andis Clipper work better. Clip against the hair for the most part. Leave a few inches on either side of the calf’s spine, so you can shape the ‘topline’. Older 4-H members or leaders will be glad to help you learn more about clipping, so you'll be well trained when the time comes to clip your calf for the actual show.

Transportation

Plan for transportation to the show well before show day. If you own a livestock trailer, make sure it is up to date on licensing and safety certificates, and that you have visually inspected it for any damage. Bed the floor of the trailer well. You don’t want the calf getting dirty on the way to the show.

Source

Show Day

Depending on the timing and location of the show, you might want to wash your calf before you leave the farm, or you might want to wait until you arrive at the show. Even if you wash at home, allow time to do a spot wash in case the calf does get dirty on the way.

Arrive well before the show, and tie your calf up in the designated area. You should make a deep bedding pack with straw and shavings, so you calf will stay clean, and be comfortable if she lays down. Feed her the hay she is used to getting at home. Closer to the show, feed her beet pulp. You want her as to eat as much as she wants, so she will look full.

It's important to allow show cattle time for rest.
It's important to allow show cattle time for rest. | Source

Final Preparation

You will need to use a brush and hairdryer to straighten the calf’s topline. Set the hair with a hairspray product like Magic Clear. Brush the calf all over with a soft bristle brush to remove any fine dust particles. Spray her with a coat shine product such as Cowboy Magic. You should also spray her legs and underside with fly spray if it is fly season.

Just before you are ready to enter the ring, put your leather show halter on your calf, brush her a final time if necessary and make sure there is no straw or hay sticking to her belly. Make sure her mouth and nose are clean.

It’s possible you will feel nervous about showing your calf. This is normal, and okay, but do your best to relax because your calf will pick up on your tension. If she is well prepared, you have nothing to worry about. Lead her into the ring as if you are just taking her on a practice walk at home. Use each show as a learning experience and remember that no one is successful overnight. If you keep practicing, you’ll get better and better.

Remember, winning the show isn’t everything. Learn to value the time you get to spend with your calf, and the skills you are learning, even if you don’t win the show.

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