Showing and judging livestock has been a lifelong passion for Dennis Smith. The Devon farmer tells Tim Relf about the magnetic buzz of the showring.
Long-term show competitor and judge Dennis Smith knows the showring like the back of his hand.
“One thing you quickly learn when you spend the night in a barn alongside cows is to always sleep uphill, because pee travels downhill,” jokes Mr Smith, who has been a well-known figure at summer shows for decades, notching up successes and memories both competing and judging.
“For many years I preferred to kip alongside the cows when I was showing, rather than in a tent or a cattle truck,” says Devon-based Dennis.
“But you reach an age where you simply ache too much the next morning if you sleep on straw.”
Dennis may have dispersed his award-winning Oakroyal herd of pedigree Holsteins last September, but he is judging at half a dozen events this year, the biggest of which is the Kent County Show, running from July 5-7.
He says: “My father was a farm manager, so I was born into this game.
“I’ve loved showing ever since I was in my teens. That one competition is often the culmination of a year’s planning and work. You put everything on the line when you’re in the ring.”
As well as the buzz, there is an important commercial aspect to each show, with success often bringing a commercial benefit, according to Dennis.
“We dispersed our females last autumn, but prior to that, we hadn’t sold a single animal at a public auction for 15 years. We’d sold them all privately because getting results showing cows had always provided us with such fantastic advertising ammunition,” he says.
As well as the fun and camaraderie, showing is a great learning experience, providing an opportunity to meet people from across the country.
“There’s lots of chat, especially in the evenings,” he says. “As a youngster, I’d simply sit back and listen. I also learned that some people would speak a lot more freely after a glass of whisky.”
Dennis says last summer and early autumn was a hectic spell, leading up to the dispersal of his herd at Sedgemoor Auction Centre, Somerset, where trade topped at 5,600gns twice with an overall average, from week-old calves to senior cows, of £2,000/head.
Less than a fortnight before the sale, the herd won the Holstein UK ‘Premier Pedigree Herd of 2018’ award, having previously reached the finals of the competition six times.
“It was amazing, although we didn’t really have time to enjoy the moment because we were so busy getting ready for the sale,” he says.
“On auction day, I did the last milking about midnight, then started loading stock at 3am.”
Now in his mid-60s, Dennis plans to retire, although he still has a few animals on his farm near Exeter and is not ruling out getting involved in new farming enterprises.
“I’ll play it by ear,” he says. “I’m still operating on ‘milking time’ and waking at 4am every morning.
“Farming, to me, has always been about the cows. My mother told me that as a little kid, I’d stand in the garden watching the cows for hours. When I was 17, I didn’t buy a car, I bought my first pedigree heifers.
“There are easier ways to earn a living but you don’t do it for the money, you do it because you love it and you try to make money out of it. I never described myself as a farmer who kept cows. I was a cowman who had to farm because that was the only way I could feed my cows.”
Dennis was twice crowned Master Breeder by Holstein UK in 2007 and 2017, and his animals won many awards over the years, including multiple championships at the Royal Cornwall Show and Devon County Show. His herd had an average classification of more than 88 points for many years and exported males and females to as far afield as New Zealand, Spain and Russia.
Such credentials drew visitors to Pilehayes Farm from across the UK and from as far afield as Australia, Italy and Finland – both organised groups and people turning up on the doorstep.
“We had visits from some Irish priests who were absolute cow fanatics, but the oddest visit was from a nightclub owner who thought he could make money out of cows so came to have a look round,” says Dennis.
“He turned up in a big fancy car with three minders.”
Dennis’ judging career began when he was in his 20s and he has since handed out the rosettes at many top events, including the National Dairy Show in Ireland and the Royal Highland Show.
He says: “There were 400 head of cattle at the biggest show I ever judged. The only disappointment for me was when that day came to an end.”
He is aware the time and expense involved in showing is putting many people off nowadays, with fewer people working on farms, tighter margins and TB all contributing to a less active show scene than in times gone by.
“But showing and judging are brilliant ways to learn about livestock,” says Dennis. “I’m a Holstein man, but I have tremendous respect for all breeds. When you judge an inter-breed competition, which I’ll be doing at Kent, you have to put first the best representative of its breed.
“If you’ve got an exceptional Ayrshire, a good Holstein and a good Jersey, the Ayrshire gets it because she’s exceptional for her breed.”
He also stresses how vital it is to keep away from the stocklines ahead of actually judging.
“You want to see the animals for the first time that day when they come into the ring,” he says.
“Then you have to ignore everything you’ve seen and heard before. You can’t have any preconceived ideas. All that matters is what comes in that ring on that day. It’s just you and the cows in front of you.
“Animals have good days and bad days. A cow can look like a dream some days, but another occasion might not be her day or her stage, so it doesn’t matter what she’s achieved before. If she isn’t good enough on the day she shouldn’t win.”
After the rosettes have been awarded it is then worth spending some time in the stocklines, providing the exhibitors an opportunity to discuss your decisions, says Dennis.
“You might get the occasional moan, but at least you can explain your choices. You’ve got to have faith in your own judgement, but also listen to other people’s views, even if you disagree with them,” he says.
“In some ways, it’s more important to talk to the people who haven’t won. The person who came first will be having a great day as it is, so concentrate on the people who aren’t having such a good day. Their animals will have their good points, too.
“Kent Show is a lovely, friendly event with some fantastic livestock so I can’t wait to judge there – and I won’t have to rush home to get the milking done either.
“I absolutely love judging stock. I love that moment when a cow enters the ring – you’ve never seen it before, you’ve never heard of her but you think: Wow. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
“I’ve seen many truly great cows. As for the truly perfect cow though? Well, that’s like the truly perfect bull – I’ve heard they exist but, have never actually seen one.”