A Champion Among Champions

September 15, 2009 07:00 PM

David Dickson evaluates Shadowcliff RA Gina at the 1982 International Holstein Show (David Younger on the halter). Photos: Agri-Graphics
For David Dickson, who has judged more shows at World Dairy Expo than anyone else (15 shows and six breeds since 1974), the important part of the work begins long before the cattle step on the colored shavings.

"I always try to keep the commercial dairyman in mind when I'm judging a show,” says Dickson, who has served on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and as coach of its judging team for nearly 40 years.

"One of the AI studs ran a great ad campaign a few years back. It said: ‘Utility is Beauty.' I think every judge needs to commit that slogan to memory and live by it,” he says.

Living by principle is at the heart of Dick-son's lifetime of judging cattle and developing young minds, not just at home but also all around the world. Born in Washington State, the son of a dairyman, Dickson's career took him east in the 1960s to Wisconsin, where he fell in love with the region and gained a deep appreciation for the state's dairy culture.

"Dave is very much a perfectionist,” says longtime friend and former student Tom Morris. "He is driven that way, and that has been a part of his judging teams over the years. He's probably touched as many dairy youth in the United States as anybody in the industry. He is very passionate about the next generation of this industry.”

Pete Kappelman, another former student and a partner in Meadow Brook Dairy Farms in Manitowoc, Wis., agrees. "I've always believed that Dr. Dave possessed the rare combination of personal characteristics necessary to have made a great corporate CEO,” he says. "Instead, he parlayed his knowledge, passion and vision into developing and inspiring shy farm kids into confident professionals and poised industry leaders. The ripple effect of Dr. Dave's vision for opportunities with dairy cattle and a strong dairy business proposition has had a profound impact on the industry.”

With his trademark "Super Mario” mustache, which he's worn for most of his adult life, Dickson is known not just for his fairness in the ring but also for his innate ability to sift through hundreds of cattle to find the champions in their ranks.

When he thinks back on all the years he's judged at Expo, two specific memories come to mind. The first is having the opportunity to name Brookview Tony Charity (EX-97) Grand Champion of the Holstein Show in 1982.

"She's considered by most judges to be the most nearly ideal in all her conformation traits of all the cows who have ever walked the tanbark at any show,” he reflects. "I'll never forget the personal thrill and excitement of seeing a cow that came so close to perfection walk gracefully into the ring.”

The second memory is of an incident that happened in 1980 during the Centennial National Brown Swiss Show.

"As I studied the final few cows that entered the Coliseum, I heard a thundering roar behind me, and a collective gasp from the spectators,” Dickson recalls. "When I turned around to see what all the commotion was about, I was amazed to see almost every cow in the class headed in my direction at a dead gallop without anyone holding onto the halters.”

The string of a large balloon that was tethered to a cement block on the Coliseum floor had become tangled in one of the cow's legs. "This brought the balloon tumbling toward the floor, creating the first—and hopefully only—full-fledged stampede ever seen at a dairy show. For those who weren't there that day, I can report that no one was hurt, the cows were all recaptured and ‘the show went on,'” Dickson says.

Famous for coaching collegiate judges to give a good set of reasons, Dickson explains his placings as Official Judge of the 1982 International Holstein Show.
Dickson's calm demeanor
—whether it's at the moment of crowning a new champion or when a crisis comes up unexpectedly—is the basis of his life's work.

In the early days of Expo, when the event was struggling to gain a foothold, he helped the core group of organizers maintain a focus on the long-term objectives of the event.

No doubt about it, the work has paid off. And today, World Dairy Expo has become the heart of the dairy business for producers across North America and abroad.

"About five years ago, I taught a weeklong judging course to a group of young people in Sapporo, Japan,” Dickson says. "One day when I came back from lunch, I walked into the classroom to find the students totally engrossed in a video of the Holstein show at Expo. The level of interest in this event is unprecedented.

"But perhaps the major impact of Expo on the dairy community, however, is not the amazing worldwide exposure it gives our producers, breeders, genetics organizations and equipment dealers,” he continues. "I would suggest that the most important benefit of Expo is the opportunity every producer and his or her family have to spend a day or two away from the farm, to see the newest equipment and methods being touted in our industry and to meet not just their neighbors, but also dairy producers from around the globe” who can share their different perspectives.

"Dr. Dave often sees in people what others cannot,” says Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and a former judging team member. "He has the uncanny ability to identify unbridled talent and foster growth in youth and those he works with, and he can take individuals with average abilities and unfocused energy and mold them into articulate, focused industry leaders. What a gift!”

Adds former student Morris: "Dave has had a tremendous positive impact on the dairy industry, like only a few other people. He wasn't a researcher; he was more of a motivator. Some people have a white lab coat on and research all the little things, but Dave was more out front. And he still is.”


Q How do you organize your mind before judging a show like World Dairy Expo?

"I convince myself before I begin judging a show that I won't pay any attention to the people leading the cattle in the ring, and I won't remember how any of the cattle have placed at other shows. You have to be able to do this to select the best cattle that day.
"It's important to have a mental image of the ideal conformation of every class. You must know exactly what you are looking for in each class. The exhibitors invited you to judge because they value your opinion. If you're really working at giving your opinion, you cannot be ‘wrong.' People may not agree with your opinion, but if they don't, they can vote for a different judge next time.”

Q What should other people who aspire to be a judge at Expo someday learn from your experiences?

"Anyone who aspires to judge at Expo must have an abiding love and sincere appreciation of fine dairy cattle. They must be true students of conformation and type. And they must see as many really good cattle as possible. They must also recognize that ideal type is constantly changing.

"Cows today are so much different—and clearly better—than the cows I remember from my 4-H days in the 1950s that it's almost impossible to describe. Working in the dairy industry as a cattle evaluator is a tremendous asset to becoming a judge of major shows. See as many cattle and shows as possible.”

Q Why has Expo come to represent the focal point of the worldwide dairy industry? What has been the key to its success?

"Those of us who remember the first three or four Expos can tell you this was not an easy task to accomplish. It required a lot of experimentation, imagination, and hard work to reach today's level of success. I'd suggest one of the keys is the successful marriage of the commercial exhibits and the dairy cattle exhibits. For some reason, it works better at Expo than it does at virtually any other show in the world.”

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