A glimpse behind the scenes in the cattle pavilions at the Sydney Royal Easter Show reveals the complexity for both exhibitors and judges of showing animals at Australia’s largest annual event.
Story Kirsty McKenzie Photos Ken Brass and Peter McNeill
As the fifth generation of his family to breed cattle on Kholwha Station near Gloucester, NSW, James Laurie is amply qualified to be this year’s Devon judge at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. He runs Devon and Angus studs and Angus/Devon Shorthorn-cross breeds on the property, which spans more than 2000 hectares, near Barrington Tops National Park. Since 1980, he has also judged cattle at local, regional, state and national finals and sales in his ‘spare’ time.
James says he always likes to spend time before the show thinking about the descriptions he might use for the placings. He believes it’s important to think through the selection so he doesn’t get bogged down choosing between animals and risk losing the interest of the crowd. The night before he usually opts to stay with friends in Sydney, to help him relax, talk and think about anything but cattle. “I usually experience a few nerves on judging day,” he admits. “I don’t mind this as it shows you’re keyed up for the job. I think it’s like walking out to bat in a cricket final or running on to the field in a rugby game – you need the adrenalin to get you focused. Once the whistle blows, or you enter the showground and the familiar smells of the cattle shed, you can relax and concentrate on the task at hand.”
PIC JAMES LAURIE
Judges usually report to show organisers and stewards at least half an hour before the judging is due to start. “You need to work out where the cattle will be entering the ring from, where the official table is, the microphone, class numbers and ribbons that will be awarded,” James says. “I make a mental note of how I intend to work the cattle in the ring, so I can get a good look at them and make sure the spectators get a good view as well. I believe it’s important to set out your methods early in the judging and don’t alter them unless it’s for major championship class. The experienced exhibitors soon grasp your ringcraft methods and so the judging process becomes streamlined and easier to follow for the onlookers.”
Judging itself is a pretty serious business, though James admits that there are lighter moments. Old hands among the grooms will try to give themselves a bit of an advantage by standing their animal up on the higher part of the ring or keeping their entrant away from its major competitor. “All these efforts can be destroyed, of course, if a judge waits until the animal is almost set up then asks him to move,” James says. “I heard about one judge who was being particularly tedious, sending the entrants round and round and swapping places. Eventually one exhibitor got particularly disgruntled, dropped the halter and told the judge to do it himself.”
Mindful that judging is very subjective, James says he likes to get the animals that catch his eye as they enter the ring together as soon as possible to make closer comparisons. “I try to avoid trends or fads that may be happening in the industry,” he says. “I place the cattle as I see they best suit my breeding needs and I constantly ask myself which animal I’d want on my property. I try to concentrate on the strengths of each entrant rather than their weaknesses.”
When the business end of judging is over and the ribbons have been presented, James usually heads off for a drink with the stewards to thank them for their help. Then he heads back to the cattle pavilion to mix with the exhibitors and try to answer their questions. “For every happy exhibitor with a ribbon there are often a few others who might not be so happy,” he says. “You have to try to explain why you put their animal down. A strong mental note of each class helps and hopefully you can pacify the disgruntled exhibitor. It’s not easy when you’ve just spent three hours looking at more than 100 head and someone wants to know why they were placed sixth instead of fifth. But it costs the exhibitors a fair amount of money to get their animals prepared and to the show. The ones who missed out are bound to be disappointed. As I often say, under another judge, the placings may have been completely different.”
For Michael and Jenny Millner of Rosedale Charolais Stud, near Blayney, NSW, the Sydney Royal is a family affair. They’ve been bringing their steers to town since 1979 and their studs since 1980. Gradually, they have encouraged their children – lawyer Felicity, merchant banker James and agricultural economics student Rob – to assume greater roles. These days, it’s James and Rob who stay in their swags above the lockers in the pavilion to keep an eye on the cattle during the show, and Felicity lends a hand when work permits. Jenny and Michael stay with friends or at a hotel and visit the showground daily.
This year, Rosedale has entered six bulls, three heifers and two cows with calves, and the cattle will be in town for about a week. As Michael is on the council of the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW (RAS), he’ll be in Sydney for the whole fortnight of the show. “The show is our shop window and it gives us exposure that we couldn’t get anywhere else,” Michael says. “Almost one million people go each year, so it’s our opportunity to catch up with a lot of friends and clients and do a bit of PR and marketing, not to mention field a few outrageous questions from the general public. Doing well is good, but it’s just as important to impress people in the industry. At the end of the day, the judge is there to express his opinion and it doesn’t mean he’s right all the time.”
Getting ready for the show is practically perpetual motion as the Millners start selecting the stock as soon as they are weaned in May, just weeks after the final fireworks go off over the Sydney Showground. By mid-December handfeeding starts to build condition and also get the stock used to the human contact. Preparation in earnest conveniently coincides with the school and university holidays and, this year, Rob spent the best part of the summer working with the stock, getting them used to being in the race and tied to the rails, and eventually teaching them to lead and used to being groomed. Final selections are made by February when the entries have to be lodged.
“Our local Blayney show in March is the big test run,” Michael says. “Something seems to click with the cattle and they know how to respond to the lead after a day out. Mind you, after a week in Sydney they’re broken in for life. You can lead them through crowds and they don’t even flinch.”
Once the cattle are installed in the pavilions, life settles into a routine. “We take them out to walk them 400 to 500 metres each morning and, while they’re out, someone has to clean out the stalls,” Rob says. “The day before the judging, the cattle are weighed, scanned and age and identity checked to give the judge extra information. We take them out to be washed and then someone stays up with them all night to make sure they don’t get dirty. We take it in turns to stay on watch.”
Judgement day begins bright and early as the cattle have to be tidied up and groomed by professional fitters. Secret weapons might include hair spray, heavy-duty gel, oil and even glitter if the animal is being shown at night. “Technically, you can’t do anything which disguises an entrant’s faults,” Jenny says. “You want your entrant to look its best, but I have great faith that you can’t hide too much from a good cattleman.”
Actual judging begins around 8.30am and, depending on the size of the category, can last until 2.30pm. The winners are paraded and, for most, it’s time to celebrate or commiserate until next year. Grand champions in each breed are automatically entered in the prestigious Hordern and Urquhart trophies – the Hordern is for a cow and bull while the Urquhart selects the supreme beef breed across all the exhibitors. This year, there are a total of 1100 possible contenders entered across 23 beef breeds. “There are several grand parades throughout the show, but it’s the kind of event everyone wants to go in until they’ve done it once,” Jenny says. “It’s actually quite stressful because there’s always a chance the bull you’re leading will get spooked by the Carlton Clydesdales or the carts with bells on them. It gets shared around the breeds and we try to encourage everyone to get out there once during the show.”
The Millners agree that camaraderie at the show is always good, with plenty of willing hands among the exhibitors and across the breeds. “There are lots of young people about so, inevitably, there’s a romance or two,” Jenny says. Michael adds, “It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun. Win or lose, I wouldn’t miss it for quids.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #52
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007