One of the most sinister practices of our age, revealed.

Surprisingly, there's quite a bundle to be made in dairy shows... if your cow is a winner, that is. The prize offered is not high, usually ranging between $50 and $100 and not even covering the costs of preparation and transportation of the cow. If you win, however, the money just starts piling up. First, there's the sale of the cow. People are willing to pay as much as $600,000 for a winner, just for the sake of owning a truly magnificent... cow. 

Then, if the animal is not sold immediately, there are the offspring. A healthy cow produces about 40 embryos at a time, and if that cow is a champion the fertilized embryos are flushed out and frozen so that they can be sold later. A single embryo from a winning cow can bring $5,000 or more. Not bad for a few cells.

Now, if you're like me and have never participated in a livestock show, you should be aware; it's all about udders. The shape and feel (yes, feel) of a cow's udder can account for as much as 40% of her final score, simply because it is the most important part of the bovine body. Remember, these are milk cows, and no points are awarded for nice personalities. So when farmers are sprucing up their prize heifers, they have to pay particular attention to the udders. Not that an udder is an easy thing to ignore.

There are two types of udder care, the first being general attention. This includes all the procedures a prudent farmer practices with his milk cows; giving them a clean environment, feeding them well, and flame-clipping regularly. There are endless numbers of products available for udder care, including Lanovet Ointment, Nitro Ointment, Petrolatum, Red Udder Ointment, Sulfa Urea Cream, Teat Dip, Udder Budder, and B.B. Jelly Udder Balm. Now, what does one do with a product called 'B.B. Jelly Udder Balm'? I suggest that we run, screaming.

And flame-clipping? Cows are vulnerable to several diseases of the udder, including mastitis, and removing the hair from a cow's udder, or flame-clipping, can help prevent these. How do you flame-clip an udder? Well...

Gather your materials:

The flame-clipping process:

  • First, limit the cow's movement by locking it in a row of stanchions, making sure to keep the flame out of its sight (astonishingly enough, cows are not too fond of open flames).
  • Then move the flame quickly beneath the udder, keeping it about two inches from the skin. The flame should be yellow in color, and less than six inches high. Several passes will have to be made to finish removing all the hair.
  • Hint: never flame-clip around any combustible material (because that would be bad).

But the judges demand more than 'healthy' when it comes to their favorite 40%. The judges want to see udders that are firm, round, and evenly proportioned. They want their winners to be truly superior. And farmers want their cows to win. The result? The darker side of dairy shows. A crime so heinous that even in these enlightened times, it chills honest Wisconsin farmers to the core.

Udder tampering crime wave!

Oh, the humanity! This is the second, more sinister variety of 'udder care.' Our story begins with, and I quote, the "groundbreaking" Livestock Show Reform Act, passed in Ohio in 1995. It was the result of a scandal at the Ohio State Fair, and the first law to make livestock tampering a felony. The state, as a result, now spends between $150,000 and $200,000 on investigations, and has sent several people to prison. For udder tampering. 

One casualty of the new law, a Georgetown resident by the name of Ryan Daulton, was quoted as saying, "Sheep were my life. It basically ruined everything." Daulton's lamb had taken home a blue in 2003, but that December the state accused him of giving the lamb ractopamine, an illegal performance-enhancing nutritional supplement. It's a cautionary tale.

Now, a certain amount of preening is to be expected at a dairy show. This can include measures such as washing, grooming, trimming, and even rubbing shoe polish into the hooves of the cows. Some people even sprinkle talcum powder on the discolorations of white cows. But the first, most easily detected form of udder tampering is the administration of drugs such as steroids or injections. Urine tests, now routine at fairs, caught many of these, but some overly determined criminal found a way around that. The injection of gas into the udder, for instance, is a threat only recently being addressed.

Each cow has one udder, which is divided into four sections. Often, cows are born with discrepancies in the size of the different sections. By injecting an antibiotic for mastitis, a disease that results in the inflammation of milk ducts, into healthy cows, these small imperfections and asymmetries can be corrected. A newer trick is the injection of 'silver protein,' also causes a small, localized inflammation of the udder that can be used to correct shape of the udder.

In order to combat this threat, veterinary radiologist Robert T. O'Brien from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a colleague who chose to remain unnamed, began developing ultrasound screening tests that could be used to detect injected gas in the udders of competing cows. They were successful, as it turned out that distinctive black streaks and bubble patterns could be seen deep within the tissue. A truly shocking figure: the instance of tampered udders, among the winning cows, was between 30% and 40% before these techniques were developed. O'Brien and Shy Colleague were dubbed the "infamous udder-ultrasound dudes," and have already begun training a cadre of eager youngsters around the world to test for udder tampering. The future looks bright.

The instances of cheating, it is reported, have decreased dramatically already, but new udder tampering techniques are developed daily. A recent favorite is the injection of saline directly into the udders to 'pad' them, which cannot be detected by ultrasound. It can, however, be seen in a dramatic reduction in glucose concentrations in milk. "We never get ahead," O'Brien says bravely, "but we do try to keep up." 

Consider yourselves warned, folks. This is no laughing matter.


Science News, July, 2003. pg. 24.
Website on flame-clipping: <>
Website on udder care: <>

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