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The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Dairy Cattle Show Ethics

Exhibiting dairy cattle at a high level has a long North American history.  It is steeped in tradition.  Fitters have learned some techniques to do things that most people never thought possible.  However, the interesting thing that most outside the fraternity probably don’t realize is that they have also learned to adhere to an honor system known simply as “the Code.”

Now you will not find “the Code” published anywhere and if you asked them what makes up “the Code,” they would never tell you.  A fitter learns the code from years of working with the same crew at the same shows and understanding how things operate.  As mysterious as it is sacred, “the Code” is an unwritten set of rules – the bible of fitter sportsmanship, if you will – that has been handed down through generations.

The Legends of the Game

Even though the code has been around since breeders starting exhibiting cattle, it remains a taboo subject, so much so that many of the fitters are simply unwilling to talk about it.  Even when outsiders criticize the ethics of many of these fitters, they stand fast together and keep “the Code” to themselves.  They even self-police who is playing by “the Code” and who is stepping outside the lines.  I have even seen it comes to blows when one fitter takes it too far and an “enforcer” or elder statesmen sees the need to help “educate” a young fitter.

I can still remember when I first started showing cattle, and having the legendary Bert Stewart, (side note: Bert is probably given more to educating dairy youth than any other human being on the planet) show me how they used to do toplines and get things just right.  From there I aspired to tune my skills by watching the likes of Larry Bennett and Lowell Lindsay.  While the techniques have changed, there is no question these men and others like them pioneered the craft of dairy cattle fitting and helped make our breed great

The Cow Whisperer

However, there probably is no person to whom I can attribute learning more about “the Code” than from the late David Brown.  While I have heard many things said about David, there is no one can deny his love of cattle and his insane ability to get a cow ready for the ring.  David was some sort of “cow whisperer.”  He could just look at a cow and know exactly what it would take to have her looking her best the moment she entered the show ring.  I will not say that all those tactics were in line with the written code of ethics.



I can still remember when in 2002, David wanted to bring the great Merkley Starbuck Whitney, the 2 time Grand at the Royal back for one more tour.  Having not shown in at least 8+ years and not been in milking form in at least seven, everyone had their doubts.  However, David was determined to make it happen.  Therefore, at about 2 am on a cold Friday morning, David rolled his string into our local fair, and sure enough, there was Whitney, small head in all.  While I will not say that she looked as good as when she won the Royal, she easily looked good enough to win her class and be Grand, not only there but also at the Rockton Championship show.  He even had her at the Royal that year.  And while she did not relive former glory at the Royal, she certainly held her own against cows half her age.  All this because of David’s passion and ability to understand what it takes to get a cow ready for the show ring.

The Next Generation

Now I am sure, given past posts on this site, that most of you are expecting me to come down hard on the current group of fitters as there practices are seen as “un-ethical” or down right immoral.  However, in reality that is not how I feel.  I grew up working with these guys on the show circuit, and still to this day consider many of them to be friends.  Now just because they are friends is not why I am taking it easy.  It’s because I have huge respect for the life they live and the work they do.

If I was to come out here and start lambasting them I would be doing the exact same thing that hockey enforcers Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson did when they spoke out about fighting in hockey years after they retired.  And as the great Don Cherry puts it, “they are pukes” and “hypocrites.”  However, it’s not just because of that I do not come down as hard.  It’s more that I understand “the Code” that they all conduct themselves under.  They support their own very strongly and if you ever want to see who the truly great show cattle are just ask one of these fitters, or better yet, watch what cows or cow families they invest in.  It’s very telling.

The one challenge I do have when it comes to show ethics is the effects it has on marketing.  Many unaware breeders looking to invest their hard-earned money into show cattle do not have the insight that is needed to play in this marketplace.  Yes, unknowing breeders do invest in poor choices, not knowing what is going on.  While I have heard the term “buyer beware” come up, it still alarms me when this happens.  My advice in this regard is, don’t invest in something you know nothing about.  I would not invest in the stock market without first learning about the market and then getting the advice of an expert.  The same is true when it comes to investing in great show cattle and genomic animals.  Barclay Phoenix, Jeff Stephens and Mike Heath, are just three of the many great cattlemen that have the eye for cattle and integrity to help steer you in the correct direction.  Remember these men only have their name to trade on, so they know it’s not about the quick buck, but rather providing a great service.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

While many outsiders would like to have all fitters barred from the business, it really is different when you look at it from an inside perspective.  I have a great deal of respect for those who choose to live that lifestyle.  It is not an extremely lucrative life, and it is not easy on personal life.  If it had not been for me developing extreme allergy to dust at age 18, I might still be doing it today.  While I am no longer involved from the inside,   I am still involved with the marketing business.  Whether it`s the next Royal or Madison Grand Champion or the world`s next top model, it is important to have the right people behind the scenes with the right preparation and those final finishing touches.  I am proud to have had the opportunity to learn “the Code” that all these men (well mostly men), live by and their internal system for ensuring that they put on the best show possible.

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