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One of a five-generation, prominent Canterbury dairying family, Gilbert (20) is forging a career as a professional fitter – someone who grooms and prepares animals for showing.
The role has taken him to several shows in Australia, including the big Sydney Easter Show. Winter is the off-season for the New Zealand show calendar, but Gilbert recently worked at a show in Malanda, North Queensland, and has more work lined up in coming weeks in Queensland and NSW.
He’s also planning trips to a show in the UK in the new year, and the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin in October, regarded as North America’s largest and most important dairy cattle show.
Gilbert is from a keen showing family – his father Peter is this year’s Canterbury A&P Show chairman – and says he has been showing cattle himself “since I was born, pretty much”.
He has been fitting professionally for about two years. He practised on the family’s animals since he was “very young”, and attended a training camp at age 11.
“Some weekends, on a Sunday if I had nothing on, I would bring four in, just to practise and get better.”
Usually working for a daily rate plus expenses, Gilbert is building his business by word of mouth. He specialises in fitting dairy cattle because that is where his experience lies.
For a standard fitting, a dairy animal would be shorn all over apart from the belly and a strip along the spine, which is carefully trimmed and set with hair spray and blow-dried to be as near as possible straight.
The idea is “nothing too fancy” but something that shows off the bone quality and the breed’s conformation. A perfectly straight top line makes a good first impression to catch the judges’ eyes.
His most successful show yet was this year’s New Zealand Dairy Event in Feilding. He and his father and a brother prepared 27 animals in a week -- their own and for two other exhibitors. They clocked up one champion, one reserve champion and a class winner.
Gilbert says he would usually do 10-15 animals at a show. For some clients, the job starts with Gilbert himself picking the best animals to show from the herd. For the next few days the show animals get a wash, two or more grooming sessions and a special diet.
He says hay seems to firm them up better than grass. Big shows can mean five or six days onsite, with someone rostered to stay up with the animals overnight, to make sure they stay clean and settled.
No matter who he is working for or what level of show, Gilbert prides himself on doing the best job possible. “It’s my name on the line, for a start. And I love seeing the transformation you can do to an animal.”
While inexperienced animals may be a bit wary of the clippers, Gilbert says they soon appear to appreciate being groomed.
“You can tell they prefer not having a lot of hair on them at the show. They relax and start eating a lot more.”
Meanwhile, Gilbert also works as an area manager for AB company Semex. He says the two roles work together well since both involve meeting and talking with dairy farmers. Winter is a busy time in the Semex role, as farmers are already sorting out their requirements for mating before calving starts.