A new generation of agricuturalists will today demonstrate their grasp of a centuries-old tradition - by taking part in the oldest college-run contest of its kind in the country.
The 55th annual stockmanship competition at Bishop Burton College near Beverley, East Yorkshire is the culmination of months of preparation by 120 agriculture students aged 16-18. It is time they have spent, quite literally, getting to grips with livestock.
The stockmanship showing concept began in the 18th century, when farmers prepared their stock for market - a well-fed, well-bred cow would command a higher price even then.
In the 1770s, a dairy cow could fetch up to £18 - the equivalent to more than £10,000 today - so there was significant money to be made in perfecting the art of stockmanship. But on a more basic level, stockmanship has been around since man started keeping animals.
It is a skill that remains as relevant today as it ever has, and it is something aspiring farmers, farm managers and vets - to name just some - must master.
The latest episode in the education of this art transpires at Bishop Burton College today. Among them are competition first-timers who are hoping to show that what they have learnt so far has indeed sunk in.
Will Foster, 17, of Brigham, is one such debutant, and is today showing a pedigree Hereford calf.
“Before I started the stockmanship process, I thought that I was a competent animal handler. It’s taken much more work than I ever thought - hundreds of hours over the last five months. I’m pleased with how she’s getting on, but walking on a halter is still a bit hit and miss. I’m hoping we pull it out the bag in the paddock today.”
Melissa Donaldson, 18, of Little Langton, and Lucy Wardle, 17, of Westow, presented dairy cows at the competition last year but have a new challenge this time round in the form of sheep.
Miss Wardle, who will be showing a Suffolk, said: “I’ve really enjoyed learning how to groom and trim the fleece. It’s something I’d never done before, so I’ve learned a really useful skill.”
The competition is designed to show students exactly what is involved in getting an animal ready for showing. It puts them in charge of diet, exercise and grooming, as well as training their animal to walk on a halter.
The featured animals, all bred and reared at the College, were handed over to students in January, becoming their sole responsibility until the day of the competition.
For the last 13 years, the contest has been presided over by College chief executive and principal, Jeanette Dawson. She has been fastidious with staying true to its roots by insisting on formal dress for all competitors.
Mrs Dawson said: “It’s one of my favourite days of the year as we get to see weeks of hard work and dedication come together. It’s animal husbandry at its finest, and every year the students surprise me.
“The competition enables our students to showcase their stock handling and presentation skills - fundamental skills that are as just important today as they were hundreds of years ago.”
Judging the students’ skills is Minty Willoughby, the National Farmers’ Union chairman for Lincolnshire and a dairy farmer who runs more than 300 pedigree cows. She will present the winner with the very same trophy that the College has handed out since the first competition in 1961.
Students are judged on the general presentation and handling of the animal, their personal presentation, knowledge of the breed and their preparation in the run up to the event.
Mrs Dawson added: “These core skills continue to play a key role in agricultural and agri-food industries. They are part of the development of the next generation of farmers and suppliers of the future, and I’m proud that we continue such time-honoured traditions.”
Spectators can watch the competition for free at the College from 1pm today.