4-H families, at least in Minnesota, wrapped up one of the most important requirements of the 4-H dairy project: animal identification.
    For those unfamiliar with the 4-H dairy project, here’s an explanation. Each year, every cow, heifer or calf that a 4-H student plans to show at the county fair must be identified with the county 4-H office by May 15. This is a strict deadline, and there are strict requirements that go along with the identification process. Failure to properly identify an animal by the deadline leaves that animal ineligible for exhibition at the state fair and for receipt of any ribbons higher than blue at county fair.
    Thankfully, the identification process has come a long way since the advent of digital registration. My kids will never know the fun my generation of 4-H kids had while painstakingly filling out the yellow paper identification forms with our best penmanship. Or, the fun of drawing each animal’s markings on the bovine outlines.
    The digital process now involves entering every animal’s identifying information in an online portal, double-checking that all of the information is correct, and submitting. Cows and heifers who are already enrolled from previous years only need to be renewed in the system.
    The only gripe I have is that there is no simple way to move a heifer from one sibling to another. In our family, the youngest showperson halters the youngest animals – usually winter calves and spring calves – but then an older sibling might show them as a yearling or cow.
    This year, we renewed the cows and heifers who will be returning to the show ring and added the calves and heifers who will be making their debut. Then, we decided to do something we’ve contemplated for several years: to ID everyone else. By everyone else I mean every other eligible animal. Cows cannot be ID’d after they’ve calved, so this list included all of the calves and heifers not yet fresh.
    Here’s why:
    – Back up plan for bad luck. We’ve always ID’d extra animals – calves and heifers with show ring potential but not first choices – just in case something happens to the kids’ first choices.
    Ideally, a 4-H student would grow a dairy project over time – show an animal as a heifer, then as a cow, and for years after that. In reality, it takes an incredible amount of luck and good fortune to show the same bovine from calf to aged cow.
    Monika had a really good run with her Jersey cow, Sunlight. She showed her as a spring calf, yearling, 2-year-old, 3-year-old, and 4-year-old. Unfortunately, a mid-gestation pregnancy loss means Sunlight will be dry during the fair this year.
    We’ve had far more bad luck with show cows and heifers. We’ve had favorite fair heifers who don’t calve in with fair-quality udders, show cows whose udders don’t recover well from a case of mastitis, and others who end up being dry during the fair. Dan has had more than his fair share of heartbreak with fair heifers not becoming fair cows. Fingers crossed, it looks like this year a couple of his heifers finally turned into nice cows.
    Now, when a first choice doesn’t pan out, our kids will have an abundance of back up options.
    – No more ugly-duckling regrets.  The most correct, stylish cows in our herd will never enter the show ring because they weren’t ID’d before they calved. We call them ugly ducklings: plain-looking heifers who turn into beautiful, swan-like cows.
    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the question, “Is she ID’d?” Usually it comes right after a new heifer calves in with a really nice udder. Now, the answer will always be, “Yes.”
    – Our entire herd is their 4-H project. Again, the bias in 4-H is that 4-H kids should develop specific animals into long-term projects. In reality, every cow, heifer, and calf on our farm is part of our kids’ 4-H dairy project experience.
    They practice dairy judging on all of our cattle. They connect the dots between what they’ve studied in project bowl and what they observe and experience while doing their chores and taking care of all of our animals. Now, they’ll have the option to show all of our cattle.
    We also decided to keep every cow ID’d until she leaves the herd.
    4-H requires cows to remain continuously ID’d in order to be eligible to show. Several times now, we’ve removed a cow from the roster because she was on a calving schedule that left her in late lactation or dry during the fair. But then a cow has an extended lactation, calves in the winter, and still looks good come summer.
    That happened last year with Gloria, one of our old Milking Shorthorns. More than once, Dan looked her over and shook his head that she couldn’t be shown. She had been ID’d as a heifer, but we didn’t keep her ID’d.
    Looking back, we all wish we had made these decisions years ago. We thought it would be extra work to do the IDs and renewals. What we discovered, though, was that it was actually faster to ID every animal in the herdbook than it was to decide which calves and heifers should be identified and which shouldn’t.
    Now, they have to decide who they’re actually going to show, because they can’t take everyone to the fair.
    Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 100 cows near Melrose, Minnesota. They have three children – Dan, 15, Monika, 12, and Daphne, 9. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at sadiefrericks@gmail.com.