More than 100 years ago, the forerunner of today's calf club was created in Otago to run alongside the adult side of a strong dairy industry. Children and young animals became natural partners. From calf clubs came the more serious junior (under 13 years) and senior (ages 13-18) handling competitions at A&P Shows across New Zealand. Results from these competitions are tallied and go towards the final awards at Auckland's Coca Cola Easter Show, where children meet the friends they made at the smaller shows and have all the excitement a big city show entails.
By the Easter Show, 15-year-old Scott Woolley and his Salers cow, a large French breed, will have done nine A&P competitions this season. Scott and his fellow competitors will be judged not on the animal, but on their knowledge of the animal and how they present it, and themselves.
"Scott has been doing it since the age of 6 and wears jeans, boots, a nice shirt and tie, as well as a cowboy hat," says proud mum, Karen.
Laurie Phipps, father to Melanie, Isabelle and Laura, who exhibit Holstein Friesian cattle at the show, says: "Tidy appearance is important, as well as practicality of footwear so that if you're walked on by a heavy animal the foot is protected."
There's prize money for the Young Handler of the Year, but it's minimal and doesn't cover the cost of transporting the animal, feeding it, scrubbing, washing and polishing it, as well as buying it in the first place.
"It's getting hard for the young ones. These days there's no spare money around," says Karen. "But it's a great thing for children to do. It teaches them how to stand up in front of people, to make eye contact with the judges and gives them confidence."
Karen explains that the children learn tips and tricks at each competition, rather than through any formal course. "When they start, you can't help cringing as they get things wrong, but a few years later you smile and think, 'that's my kid'."
"The Easter Show is prestigious, it's exciting and well worth the drive from Rotorua," says Laurie. "Competition is good and strong and there's a lot of camaraderie. The kids stay in touch with the friends they meet through the season."
"The cattle become pets," admits Karen. "They have a sense of humour and understand what you're saying. Scott cuddles his calf in the paddock, it thinks it's a kitten.
"If you develop a relationship with an animal it's very rewarding," she says. "Not like people, who want to stab you in the back."
And if you don't have a paddock in the backyard? That's not a problem. According to Karen and Laurie, farmers are usually more than happy to let children become part-owners in an animal and to pass on their knowledge.
"We've got to keep it going," says Karen.
"We need to make sure our generation doesn't kill the tradition. We can only hope."
Visit the country in the city
A good place to start is the Calf Club, run by rural schools around New Zealand. For more information visit calfclub.co.nz.
Start young children on a virtual Calf Club at rosiesworld.co.nz, which lets you adopt a calf and teaches you how to look after it over 12 days.
The Coca-Cola Easter Show
• Thursday March 28 to Monday April 1, 10am-10pm Thursday to Sunday; 10am-6pm, Monday. ASB Showgrounds, 217 Green Lane West, Greenlane
• Get involved with the animals at the Easter Show's Farmworld A&P Livestock Pavilion. Judge the weight of prize bulls, pet animals, watch the sheep-dog trials, draft sheep and "shear" teddy bears (with the help of big burly shearers). More than 1000 competitive animals including alpacas, cattle, pigs, poultry, mini horses, Shetlands, donkeys and so many more will be on show. If you love animals, it is the place to be this Easter.
• Entry to the A&P Show is free with Easter Show tickets. Adults $25, kids and seniors $10, families $50. On sale now at eventfinder.co.nz.