July 22, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.

The pinnacle of summer

A look inside the dairy shows of two Wisconsin county fairs

By STACEY SMART | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
Staff Writer


Cows are judged during the Holstein Futurity class at the 2021 Sheboygan County Fair in Plymouth, Wisconsin. The Sheboygan County Fair is home to the largest Holstein Futurity in the state.


WAUKESHA, Wis. – Before there were light bulbs or telephones, there were county fairs in Wisconsin. Held in the city of Waukesha, the first fair took place in 1842 – six years before Wisconsin became a state. The fair featured fireworks and a festive dinner as well as a plowing match between farmers. 

Celebrating its 181st anniversary July 19-23, the Waukesha County Fair is Wisconsin’s oldest fair. Although much has changed since that first fair held in a poplar grove on the Fourth of July, the concept of competition remains the same.

A highlight of the county fair from nearly the beginning was the dairy show. Brittany Renn Gerrits, a member of the Waukesha County Fair’s dairy superintendents’ committee, said the fair started as a dairy summer exposition show and evolved into the county fair.

“For many years, we had lots of dairy cows in our area,” Gerrits said. “During the 1980s, there were over 300 herds in Waukesha County. Now, it’s down to less than 10. Back then, the show barn used to have no tack space; it was full all the way through.”

The show shrunk as time went on, and last year, 40 head of dairy cattle were exhibited. This year, about 50 head were entered.

“We saw some growth from last year, which is great,” Gerrits said. “It’s a smaller show, and each kid usually has one animal they really focus on. Most of the animals are heifers with just a handful of cows.”

Animals are shown by 30 to 35 4-H youth exhibitors, many of whom come from the city.

“With lots of urbanization and change through the generations, we went from being called Cow County USA down to what is now a pretty unique show,” Gerrits said. “Almost none of the kids showing come from dairy farms.”

When Cozy Nook Farm opened up its dairy project in March, many kids had never stepped foot on a farm before, let alone walked into a pen and put a halter on a calf, Gerrits said. A lot of development takes place in a short time as youth go from timid to confident in working with cattle.

“We’re building a herdsman from the ground up, and there’s a lot of work that goes into that,” Gerrits said. “The parents don’t have experience either, so both are learning at the same time.”

Because these youth do not do the day-to-day work on a dairy farm, Gerrits said the atmosphere is different from a county fair where a kid might have delivered their show animal as a calf and showed her until she was a 5-year-old cow.

“A lot of times, we don’t have that story here,” she said. “When my parents showed, everyone came from a farm.”


Ellie Szczech pauses for a photo with a Guernsey fall calf named Coors from Cozy Nook Farm that she showed at the 2022 Waukesha County Fair in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Forty head of dairy cattle were exhibited at last year’s fair by youth exhibitors, many of whom come from the city.


Waukesha County offers classes for all seven dairy breeds, but typically the Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein and Milking Shorthorn breeds are shown. Classes range from a spring calf up through a 5-year-old cow within each breed. Last year, the show was moved into the dairy barn, and now, half of the barn is devoted to housing animals while the other half is re-served for show space.

“The winter calf classes are pretty big because that animal is the right size and age range for kids to handle comfortably,” Gerrits said. “We’re still in the white shirt and white jeans era, and kids who never had to buy a white pair of jeans before in their life are having to buy them for the show.”

Three showmanship classes are offered – junior, intermediate and senior. Showmanship also recognizes first-year showmen, who receive a medallion welcoming them to the dairy project. Grand champions of each breed are named along with a junior and senior supreme champion and overall supreme champion.

“There is an open show in the book, but rarely does anyone show in that,” Gerrits said.

The Waukesha County Fair also holds a milk quality contest based on a cow’s DHI test. The exhibitor with the top milk quality cow in each lactation gets to sell a Golden Gallon in the livestock auction. The purchaser of that gallon receives an engraved glass pitcher filled with flowers, and the exhibitor is given the proceeds.

Gerrits handles all the awards for the show – from finding sponsors to ordering awards – and said prizes have changed quite a bit in recent years. Historically, each class winner received a plastic trophy, while a bigger trophy was given to the grand champion. But prizes have since transformed into items kids can use, Gerrits said. For example, class winners now receive supplies to use in the barn or in the future, such as folding tables, chairs, coolers and back-packs.

“These are things they can take out into their everyday lives and use as they go for-ward,” Gerrits said. “It’s fun to think outside the box a little bit.”

The fair continues to provide ribbons to each exhibitor as well as trophies for grand champions. They also offer a premier exhibitor award which is based on a point system. The top five exhibitors receive profits from baskets sold at a silent auction that takes place during the show.

“This provides motivation to come back with a vengeance next year with more animals and do better in showmanship,” Gerrits said.

When it comes to sponsors, Gerrits said a great group of farm families in the county step up every year. Families that have started showing or grandparents of 4-H kids will donate money toward a class or junior champion. Breed associations also donate.

Five volunteers at the Waukesha County Fair specialize in the dairy side of things. They receive help from an overall livestock superintendent, board of directors and fair president.

“Many hands make light work,” Gerrits said. “Whether we’re moving gates or taking down the show ring, we call on a lot of the kids – especially the older ones – to be leaders and rely on them to help us get things where they need to be.”

Held in Plymouth every Labor Day weekend, the Sheboygan County Fair is not far behind Waukesha County in longevity and will celebrate its 172nd year in 2023. 

Dairy superintendent Trevor Mentink is one of three superintendents for the fair’s dairy show. Mentink, who grew up showing at the Sheboygan County Fair, said showmanship records for the show date back to 1948 when an overall champion showman was selected.

“When I was a kid, there were quite a few animals in the show,” he said. “Our barn was always very full, and there was not enough space. We used to have lofts in an old barn where we kept supplies, but it got to the point where there was nothing but animals in there. Now, we have plenty of space for animals, tack and supplies.”

The one dairy barn on the grounds has been a part of the fair since it started and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Last year’s show welcomed 177 dairy animals to the fairgrounds, with 95 entries shown by 43 youth exhibitors in the junior show and 82 entries in the open show. Mentink said those numbers are small compared to past years, but numbers are holding steady for the time being.

“Our dairy show has gotten considerably smaller in the last 25 to 30 years,” he said.

Unlike Waukesha’s fair, youth exhibitors at the Sheboygan fair are a mix of dairy farm kids and kids adjacent to a farm, Mentink said, such as someone who helps on a farm or has grandparents who farm.

The youth show is a day-long event that takes place on Friday starting at 9 a.m. Cows are shown first followed by heifers in the afternoon. Showmanship classes are held Saturday morning followed by the open show which begins around noon. The futurity is held on Sunday. 

“We have a very popular futurity contest with close to 30 entries,” Mentink said. The Sheboygan County Fair is home to the largest Holstein futurity in the state.

According to Mentink, competition in the dairy show is fairly stiff.

“Last year’s Holstein spring calf class contained three animals that were nominated All-American,” Mentink said.

Holsteins are shown alongside Red and Whites in the registered and grade Holstein classes, which make up the majority of the show’s animals. There are also “any other breed” classes in which Jersey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss and Guernsey cattle can compete in a class together by age group.

“These classes are primarily Jerseys, but we also have some Brown Swiss that show up,” Mentink said.

All exhibitors receive a ribbon, while the first-place animal in each class is awarded a larger rosette ribbon, Mentink said. The fair also holds four showmanship classes divided according to an exhibitor’s school grade.

“There are special prizes throughout the show as we get further into it,” he said.

Junior and senior champions and overall best of show receive banners and chairs. The champion first-year showman or highest placed in the youngest showmanship class receives a traveling trophy. Special recognition is also given to an individual selected from the entire dairy project, and an overall champion from all breeds is selected as well.

When showing, exhibitors wear white pants and a solid-colored top.

“When I showed as a kid, we also wore hats,” Mentink said.

Kids have an opportunity to win money in a competition known as the Showcase of Champions. The top two winners from each showmanship and the champions of the junior and senior show are placed into an auction setting with their animals while gift baskets are bid on to generate revenue for the top exhibitors.

“This is a way for the community to help support the dairy project in Sheboygan County,” Mentink said.

In addition, a special class known as Farmer Bud creates such a buzz that it fills stands to capacity. In this class, kids too young for 4-H have the opportunity to show a calf. These future showmen get their moment in the spotlight on Saturday when they bring a small calf and walk it around the ring a couple of times. At the end, they receive free ice cream.

“The stands fill up quite fast because parents and grandparents want to see the little kids showing,” Mentink said. “It’s usually standing room only.”

There is also a herdsmanship competition in the barn between 4-H clubs and FFA chapters to promote keeping exhibits in good condition.

“This is sort of like an MVP sportsmanship-type award,” Mentink said. “Last year, this award was given to an entire club for their efforts to help support one of their members who is in a wheelchair.”

Mentink said most show sponsors are dairy folks – farmers and industry persons wanting to encourage showing in the next generation. Grocery stores, car dealerships and other businesses also help sponsor the show.

“These sponsors are typically people who had experiences at the fair themselves and want to give kids the opportunity to have similar experiences,” Mentink said.

Volunteer involvement before and during the show are critical to its success. Mentink and his committee collect entries, decide the layout of the barn, create a show schedule and do many other tasks to get the show up and running.

“Keeping the barn clean and tidy and presenting ourselves the best we can to the public is always our goal during the fair,” Mentink said. “My family does a lot of showing throughout the year, and at the county fair, we’re trying to promote dairy and make it an enjoyable time for the kids.”

This is county fair season with many fairs taking place now through Labor Day weekend. Whether large or small, the fair is a longstanding family tradition that provides kids with experiences they will remember for a lifetime. 

“It’s important for people to continue to support county fairs,” Gerrits said. 


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