Leading her way to the top

Hensel wins national FFA dairy handlers Activity

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PITTSVILLE, Wis. — Maddy Hensel might not have grown up on a dairy farm, but her passion for the dairy industry runs as deep as if it had roots set for generations.

“When we were younger, my sister decided she wanted to show a calf,” Hensel said. “I went along and eventually fell in love with dairy cattle myself.”

Hensel’s journey in the dairy industry began by happenstance and has led her to places she never could have imagined, including winning the National FFA Dairy Cattle Handlers Activity at the National FFA Convention last month in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thirty-one FFA members from across the country vied for the top spot.

A freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point majoring in communications, Hensel was a member of the Pittsville High School FFA Chapter. She qualified to compete at the national contest by competing in the state dairy handlers activity in Madison last April. The state contest included a test based on the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association showmanship scorecard as well as the actual showmanship portion of the contest.

At the national contest, Hensel was tasked to lead two Brown Swiss cows and a Holstein heifer to showcase her abilities presenting the animals.

“The contest really reinforced the value of staying calm under pressure,” Hensel said. “You’re paired with a random animal that may or may not lead. You’re trying to show the animal to the best of your abilities as you compete, but you are also trying to give the participants the best view of the animal you can.”

Hensel said the animals led well, but the second Brown Swiss cow started out as a bit of a handful but settled down once she became acclimated to Hensel.

The dairy handlers activity is somewhat more challenging than a traditional showmanship class, Hensel said.

“We were presenting the animals for the judging contest, so you needed to follow the instructions given over the microphone, including walking the animals counterclockwise around the ring,” Hensel said.

Another challenge that faced the competitors was that the judges for the handlers contest were anonymous.

“There were multiple judges evaluating the handlers contest who were scattered among the dairy cattle judging contestants and the officials for that contest,” Hensel said. “Normally in showmanship, watching the judge and knowing where they are at all times is part of the objective. For this, you just keep leading the animal, trying to give the judging contestants the best look possible at the animal.”

Hensel said there were three rings in progression, adding to the potential for distraction for the animals.

“There was a lot going on, so it was really important to maintain your composure and get the animal you were leading to trust you,” Hensel said.

Another aspect where the dairy handlers activity differs from a traditional showmanship contest is the lack of feedback the participants receive from the judges.

“It’s nice to hear the reasons given at the end of a class to know what you did that the judges appreciated and what areas you might be able to improve upon,” Hensel said. “But with the contest being a part of the judging contest, you don’t get that opportunity.”

Unlike her older sister, Hensel did not immediately fall in love with showing but became enamored by the other activities that were available to dairy youth.

“I enjoy being more involved with the background work on the farm and in the barn at the show,” Hensel said. “I am involved with showing, but it hasn’t been the only thing in my junior project.”

Although Hensel is not an avid showmanship participant, she has helped lead various fitting and showmanship clinics through her involvement in both the Wood County and Wisconsin junior Holstein associations, where she is serving as a member of the state’s junior activities committee.

Hensel said that working part-time this past year as a show ring photographer for Dairy Agenda Today has given her a perspective on the show ring presentation of dairy cattle, and she said that experience was beneficial to her as she entered the national contest.

“Watching how the animals are presented, the different techniques people use and how they affect the overall appearance of the animals has been really interesting to me,” Hensel said. “I was able to take a lot of what I have witnessed and use that in the contest.”

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