BROOKSVILLE — Broad smiles could be seen everywhere in the show ring Friday as the 61st Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show opened.
For the first time in years, dairy cattle were invited to be shown, and the kids who led their bovines into the arena couldn't have been happier.
As livestock co-chairman Dave Ward recalled, the dairy show was scratched about 30 years ago as the number of entries shrank, along with the number of dairy farms in Hernando County. Co-chairwoman Tammy Fincher estimated it might have been closer to 15 years, based on her daughter's participation at the fair.
Nonetheless, 13-year-old Hannah Madagan of Zephyrhills showed off her 3-month-old Jersey to take the first blue ribbon in this year's rebirth of the dairy competition.
Most of the 20-plus head arrived from beyond Hernando's borders, owned and shown by 4-H club members. County extension service director Stacy Strickland said there are no commercial dairy operations remaining in Hernando.
"It's sad," said dairy show judge Murray Sinclair, a Gainesville employee of Select Sires, a national bull stud service and purveyor of dairy and beef cattle semen.
Sinclair reckons the downfall can be laid to environmental issues and land prices that make raising feed crops for the ravenous milk producers too expensive. Fincher, a former cattle owner, said her Holstein ate four times as much as her beef cow.
Florida ranks 19th among states in the number of dairy cows, Sinclair said, with production centered in Okeechobee, Gilchrist, Suwannee, Fayette and Levy counties.
So, why would a young person in the Hernando area raise dairy animals today?
"Just because the values it brings them, the lifestyle," Sinclair said. "It's hard work, but you can get your goals met in life. I believe the biggest thing for kids is values, discipline, obedience, getting up every day and feeding the calves."
Jozef Heijkoop, 10, of Webster gets up daily to feed his 3-year-old Holstein at nearby Milk-A-Way Dairy. His father, Johan Heijkoop, is a partner in the dairy.
Milk-A-Way is a good friend to 4-H. Also maintained with the dairy herd are Guernsey cows owned by Emily and Siera Linton, ages 7 and 10, respectively, of Plant City, members of the Hillsborough 4-H Dairy Club who showed at the Hernando fair on Friday.
The sisters' mother, Jennifer Linton, explained: "We don't have a milking machine." The family's heifers, before they reach production age, are raised at their home property.
Of her interest in dairy cattle and 4-H, Siera said: "You get to interact with large animals. Most people don't get to."
Young Heijkoop, a 4-Her in his third year, pointed out, "I've been around dairy cows all my life."
He said he likes "everything, really," about animals and the work involved.
Most difficult is preparing a cow for the show ring, "clipping her and keeping her udder balanced," he said.
He explained that the udder is essentially divided into quarters. To show to the best advantage, each quarter must be milked out to present a uniformly shaped production factory.
The show moved smoothly except for a brief delay in the start, which concerned Fincher.
"This is our first shot," she pointed out. "We hope to grow."
Fincher and Susan Stringer of the Jolly Ranchers 4-H Club in Hernando added a special attraction at the dairy show. They organized a giveaway during the competition of ice cream and milk, donated by M&B Products of Tampa. At the first mention of the treats over the public address system, every youth sitting in the grandstand rose from his or her seat.
"The stands just cleared out," Fincher chuckled.
Beth Gray can be contacted at email@example.com.