March 24, 2023 at 8:32 p.m.
A good eye runs in the family
That is the case for the Witscher brothers – Ethan, 18, and Ashtin, 10 – of Barron. Evaluating dairy cattle is a skill that comes naturally for the boys, the sons of Joe and Stacy Witscher. Both have had the honor of topping the youth division of the annual Hoard’s Dairyman Cow Judging Contest, a national competition they enter every year with their 4-H dairy judging group.
Ethan won the 2019 contest with a nearly perfect score, obtaining 496 points out of a possible 500. In 2022, Ashtin followed in his older brother’s footsteps, winning the contest by ousting over 8,300 entrants.
“Doing the Hoard’s contest is how we kick off our dairy judging season for our Barron County 4-H judging team,” Ethan said. “We get together, place the classes, and then our coach, Steve Fronk, has us defend our placings to him.”
Cows have been a part of the Witschers’ lives for many years. Joe worked as the herdsman at Indianhead Holsteins for seven years before the herd was dispersed in 2017.
“I have always loved being around the cows and helping my dad on the farm,” Ethan said. “It is just something I like doing.”
Ethan first forayed into dairy judging when he was about 9 years old. As the little brother tagging along to the practices, Ashtin is already several years into his own dairy judging career.
“I like looking at the cows to decide which one is the best,” Ashtin said. “Then, Steve makes us tell him why we like the ones we do.”
The boys agreed that although they have had success judging the photos published in the annual contest, they enjoy judging in person more.
“When you only have three pictures to look at, it can be hard to get a good idea of what that cow actually looks like,” Ethan said. “It’s a lot easier to see them in person.”
Ethan said some breeds are easier to judge using only photos than others.
“I have a hard time judging the Milking Shorthorns in the Hoard’s contest almost every year,” Ethan said.
The boys and their 4-H teams recently completed the 2023 version of the contest and have hopes of seeing their names among the winners once again.
“I thought I did really good on the Guernsey class,” Ashtin said. “I felt pretty good about the other ones too. Holsteins are my favorite breed to judge.”
As an older dairy youth, Ethan has come to see how his judging skills can help prepare him for the career he would like to pursue following his high school graduation.
“Learning to evaluate cows has helped me selecting and mating my own animals,” Ethan said. He has amassed a small herd of five animals, including three Holsteins, a Jersey and a Guernsey cow he recently purchased from the Hoard’s Dairyman Farm.
Ethan has worked part time for the Grewe family at Valley Gem Farm near Cumberland for two years. There he has been able to put his dairy cattle evaluation skills to practice on a daily basis and has had the opportunity to help care for some of the Grewes’ top cows, including the herd favorite, three-time World Dairy Expo champion Valley Gem Atlas Malt.
“It is really amazing to be able to help care for a cow like Malt, even though sometimes it can be a little stressful,” Ethan said. “But, it has really given me the opportunity to look at all the pieces that make her as good as she is.”
Ethan is nearing the end of his time as a 4-H dairy judging participant. After he graduates high school this spring, he plans to continue working for the Grewe family into the fall and then heading to Europe to visit some farms.
“My dad has friends throughout Europe who are willing to let me come and stay at their farms and learn how they do things,” Ethan said. “I’m not sure how long I will stay over there, but when I come back, I would like to find a good herdsman job somewhere.”
Meanwhile, Ashtin will be continuing his own dairy judging career on the home front and is looking forward to soon being one of the more seasoned judges on his team, helping those just starting out.
“I would tell someone just learning to look at things like how big their rib is and to look for the veins on their udders,” Ashtin said. “And, to know how to explain why they made the placing they did.”
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