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Best of NAMA 2020

"I think it will be Gwen."

"Well, I'm sure Kylie is going to win."

"But what about Avril?"

This is just a sample of the conversation that was flying around agriculture offices last February. And no, it wasn't about this year's Grammy Awards but rather the annual Hoard's Dairyman Cow Judging Contest.

Thanks to its fun and creativity, this contest has become an institution for agriculture marketers across the country. Now in its 54th year, the agri-marketing competition is part of an even older tradition. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Hoard's Dairyman Cow Judging Contest for readers.

Created as a way to promote the magazine and encourage readers' emphasis on selecting high-quality animals, the magazine's first editorial contest was held in 1930. Since that time it has garnered nearly 5.4 million entries from all 50 states and 83 countries.

In 1951 the agri-marketing contest was initiated as a promotional tool for advertisers. The idea was an instant hit. It has since evolved into an annual event building brand recognition for the magazine.

The contest has other benefits, too. "It's a great way to introduce dairy to people who may not have a strong background in the industry," says Hoard's Dairyman Associate Editor Corey Geiger.


Both the editorial contest and the agri-marketing contest have the same general format. Four cows compose each of five classes, one class from each major dairy breed. Cows are then ranked from best to worst based on their physical conformation. These physical traits are important because they are an indicator of an animal's ability to produce milk, last a long time in a herd and, ultimately, make money for the dairy producer.

Cows for the contest are selected from some of the best herds across the United States and Canada. Professionals then photograph them for the signature red-and-white covers of Hoard's Dairyman magazine and the agri-marketing contest booklets. So far, more than 1,500 cows have been pictured.

Official placings come from well-respected judges in the dairy industry selected by Hoard's Dairyman editors. Contest judges are given the same reprints sent to contestants and do not see the cattle live to make their placings.

Although the contests share the same concept and even the same cows, they are marketed completely differently. The editorial contest is presented in a very traditional style each year, where the focus is on educating dairy youth and producers. The agri-marketing contest takes a more trendy approach.

Even being the oldest, most-respected publication in the dairy industry has its challenges. Gary Vorpahl, director of marketing at Hoard's Dairyman, defines the problem, saying, "It's hard to make a 120-year-old magazine hip." The award-winning, wildly creative ideas for the agri-marketing contest have done just that.


In the beginning, the agri-marketing contest was labeled as the "Cow Judging Contest for Advertising Men" and featured popular Hollywood starlets. Times have definitely changed, and themes have expanded to include national landmarks, famous artwork, sporting events, television, movies and more. They have also served as a tongue-in-cheek spoof on many aspects of American life.

Throughout its history, contest ideas are also known for being very cutting edge. This year's iCow theme came just as the popularity of the Apple iPod began to skyrocket. Keeping with the premise, cows were given names like Beyoncé, Alicia, Gwen, Avril and Kylie.

Favorite themes from the past have included the "H-Files," a take on the popular "X-Files" series. Posters for the contest glowed in the dark and the prize of "enough Wisconsin cheddar cheese to feed a small alien nation" was offered to encourage participation.

In 2001 the cow judging contest had a "Survivor" theme, catching the first wave of reality TV. Naturally, margarine was the first to be voted off the island.

Another memorable theme was "Moozilla: Attack of the 50-foot Cow." Contestants that year were asked to "join other ag marketers in separating the world's most beautiful bovine from the downright terrifying." Timed for the 50th anniversary of the classic film "Godzilla," contest booklets actually screamed when opened.

Originally, Hoard's Dairyman marketing staff created the contest ideas in-house. More recently the contest has been a collaborative effort with Charleston|Orwig, a marketing communications and issues management agency located in Hartland, Wis.

Mark Gale, Charleston|Orwig's creative director and chief operating officer, says, "It is a creative joy to work on the Hoard's Dairyman contest; a chance to have some creative fun and help raise the profile of a long-time industry publication."


The contest is conducted in three separate mailings. In early February posters announcing the year's theme are sent to participants. Then, in mid-February, 5,000 booklets are mailed to companies, agencies and individuals involved in agriculture marketing. Placings cards are due about a month later.

Enthusiasm from the industry for the contest has been overwhelming. To date, more than 50,000 entries have been returned from marketing professionals.

Some groups, such as Chicago-based Rhea & Kaiser, hold agency-wide contests. This year Rhea & Kaiser distributed contest booklets to 120 employees. "The contest is something we look forward to every year," says Julia Goebel, a senior account executive at Rhea & Kaiser. In addition to offering an ice cream maker for first, the agency also had a special "udder disaster" award for the person with the lowest score.

One misconception about the contest is that you needed to grow up around cows to do well. In fact, only a small percentage of entrants have had any judging experience. For the less experienced critic, and those wishing to brush up on their skills, each booklet contains a guide on what to look for when making your placings.

Once all the entries have been collected, Hoard's Dairyman employees tabulate scores. In the 75-year history of the entire contest, a total of 79 perfect scores have been achieved. Only two of those have come from the agri-marketing competition.

Finalized results are printed and mailed in a second booklet, along with placings and reasons for each class from the official judges. The top three individuals as well as the runners-up in the agency, company, field and breed categories are recognized. Having your picture among the list of winners for all your peers to see is a coveted honor.

In addition to a year's supply of bragging rights, winners receive a plaque to hang in their office. They are also given a block of cheese made uniquely for the Hoard's Dairyman contest. Over the years, more than 10,000 pounds of Wisconsin's finest cheeses have been awarded.

This year's agri-marketing winner was Louie Hitzeroth from WestfaliaSurge in Naperville, Ill. He would have been the high individual in the editorial contest as well, a rare accomplishment for the winner of the agri-marketing contest.

Thanks to recent additions to the contest, participants can still win a prize, no matter what their judging score. This year five Apple iPods were given away to participants in a random drawing just for entering the contest.


While it has been busy giving out awards, Hoard's Dairyman has been racking up some awards of its own. This year it earned yet another Best of NAMA award for the 2004 cow judging contest. Taking top honors in the Advertising to Agribusiness Campaigns category, the theme was Hoards County Choppers, a spin-off of the custom motorcycle builders on the Discovery Channel.

The campaign has also received hardware from the Milwaukee Business Marketing Association (BMA). In the greater Milwaukee business-to-business category, the 2004 contest tied for Best of Show. It also received the prestigious BMA Bell Award. Such a distinction from a metropolitan group proves you don't have to know the difference between a Holstein and a Hereford to enjoy the contest.

"We're thrilled to have been recognized for our work by our peers in the industry and beyond," says Vorpahl. "The contest is something we always look forward to, as does the rest of the industry, plus it's a lot of fun to do. It's always gratifying when you can do something you enjoy and that gathers the attention of others."

So what can we expect from the cow judging contest in the future? Hoard's Dairyman and Charleston|Orwig employees aren't telling. I guess we will just have to wait until February! AM

Lorilee Schultz, editorial intern for Hoard's Dairyman, is a junior at Iowa State University and a member of the ISU student NAMA chapter and marketing team.

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