WHEN you have exhibited dairy cows at the Royal Melbourne Show every year since 1952, as retired dairy farmer Des Vallence has, you learn a few tricks of the trade along the way.
Like putting black shoe polish on their hooves just before you lead them into the judging ring, the benefits of clipping their coat all over (legs last), and how to wash and dry them for the best result.
But most important, says Mr Vallence, is good feed and tender care. Just like you're looking after children.
"If you want the most out of them, you've got to look after them. It's like feeding a starving kid isn't it; anything will follow the hand that feeds it."
Over the years the approach has regularly paid dividends, delivering a string of titles for prize dairy cows and heifers. Six times one of his animals has won the champion Friesian cow. Twice he has scooped the champion dairy cow at the Royal Melbourne Show.
"That's bloody like winning the Melbourne Cup," he says proudly, while sitting down for a yarn and assessing the five Jersey cows and three Jersey heifers he and son Michael have entered in this year's show.
The animals are from their dairy farm, Elmsdale Stud, at Ecklin South in south-west Victoria.
"I tell you something here, young man. I reckon we'd be the only stud in Australia to have won a broad ribbon [champion ribbon] at three different royal shows in Australia. We've had champions in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne."
Son Michael isn't so sure about the uniqueness claim, but it's an impressive winning record nevertheless.
He might be 70, retired and reliant on a walking stick, but the annual Royal Melbourne Show still brings out the old farmer's competitive instincts.
"I like a challenge, for a start; I like competing. I like winning, but you don't win all the time. You will get beat more times than you will win."
Three main characteristics - "dairyness, capacity and a good vessel" - distinguish a good dairy cow, he says.
"Capacity" can be roughly translated as frame and body size. "Good vessel" means a healthy and well-shaped udder. But the concept of "dairyness" is a bit more elusive.
"You can't explain dairyness, because dairyness you've got to be able to see," he says. A prize-winning dairy cow needs reasonably fine bones, he adds, to help explain the term.
Michael Vallence says preparations for next year's show will begin as soon as he gets home from this year's.
"It's a good barometer of how your own breeding program is going. So you can compare the results of your breeding program against the results of other people's breeding program."
It's also good for business for promoting the Elmsdale name and, of course, it's very good socially.
This year, the Vallence duo are hoping for a hat-trick. For the last two years, they have taken home the award for junior champion heifer. This year, they are resting their hopes on the fine bones of their two-year-old Jersey heifer Elmsdale Fingers 2.
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