Behind the Scenes: Livestock Picture Day

To some, picture day is a part of elementary school we will never forget. It was the one day a year we would actually dress up for school and do our hair. The day we would wait in line for our turn to awkwardly kneel in front of the pop-up screen and have unusually happy photographers tell us how great we looked and when to smile.

To livestock enthusiasts, picture day doesn’t mean dressing up or doing your hair. Sometimes, smiling is even hard to come by. Picture day in the livestock world is more of a ‘hoping for the best and preparing for the worst’ type of day.

We picture livestock in order for potential customers across the globe to be able to view what we have to offer. Pictures can go in magazines, sale fliers, on Facebook pages, and if you’re having an online sale, they can go on the sale website. By putting pictures and videos out there for people to see, you can reach an audience much larger than you could if you required people to visit your farm to view your set. That’s where picture day comes in.

Photo by Darbyshire Show Cattle

Where I come from, picture day starts early. Chores are done and as soon as the calves are finished eating, it’s time to start washing. As many of you probably know, this is a chore in itself. You have the calves that behave, the ones that don’t, and the ones that make you question their sanity. You know the ones I’m talking about; no matter how many times they’ve been in the wash rack they still act like it’s their first rodeo. You wonder when they’ll ever grow out of it, but then you remember their mother was the same way and it must be genetic. Yay.

After your set is washed, dried, and clipped to perfection, it’s finally picture time. Now hopefully by this point in the process you’ve decided where your pictures will be taken, but if not, don’t worry. You’re probably not alone. There are a few things you should know though before deciding on the perfect picture pen.

  1. You have to give the calves enough room to move around, but not too much that you’re chasing them more than you are picturing them. Space is crucial. You don’t want the calves to feel like they’re confined because they could get nervous and not cooperate. You also don’t want them to feel like they’re able to run free because they could get excited and also not cooperate. The perfect sized picture pen? Well that’s unfortunately not an answer I have. That’s for you to decide through trial and error…and error…and error. (Good luck!)
  2. You should always have a “buddy” calf. For those of you who don’t know, buddy calves are life-savers. They don’t have much of a job other than to stand there and be visible to the calf in the picture pen, but that job is an important one. One helpful tip on choosing a buddy calf is to choose a lazy one who isn’t going to mind standing around doing nothing. Old show heifers are always good options, especially if you treat them with corncobs every now and then.

    Photo by Darbyshire Show Cattle
  3. The background. Think about it, this one can make or break a great picture. Would you rather have a well-kept hay field on a nice fall day in the background of a stout steer picture or a junkyard with seven old cars, an abandoned house, and some not so nice graffiti? Personally I’m going with the hay field. The nicer the background, the nicer the photo, but be sure the calf is always the center of attention and the main focal point.

“I wish I had a camera on the calves and a camera on the crew.” -Skyler Holtkamp, Livestock Photographer

The calves are obviously an important part of picture day, but you can’t forget about the crew making the day a success. The photographer is the one taking the pictures, videos, etc. He or she has an eye for what looks best and it’s their job to make the calves look as good as possible, but they can’t do it alone. That’s where the crew comes in. A good crew member does whatever the photographer tells you, no questions asked.

When I say no questions asked, I mean it. If the photographer tells you to jump up and down making the most obnoxious noise you can, you do it. If your job is to open and close an umbrella on the sunniest day of the year, you do it. If you’re elected DJ of the picture pen, you better be blaring some AC/DC for the lazy calves and some Shania Twain for the ones who need to slow their role a bit; no questions asked

In this picture you can see the red cow on the left acting as the “buddy” calf. You can also see a crew member using props such as an umbrella and a megaphone. Photo by Mary Steffener.

Props are a big part of picture day and no matter what, they are a necessity. From pompoms and rattle paddles to megaphones and duck calls, each calf is different and you have to do whatever it takes to get them to stop perfectly and to “get those ears up!” What stops one calf in its tracks might not affect the next one at all. It’s your job as a picture pen crew member to find what works for each and every calf. Be creative! Be weird! Spin that umbrella, shake that rattle paddle, get on your hands and knees and ‘moo’ if necessary! Do whatever you have to do to make that calf look its absolute best for the picture.

Picturing livestock takes a lot of time and hard work. You choose which calves are going to make the sale and spend hours and hours getting them ready for the big day. They’re fed, watered, washed, dried, and clipped. It’s finally picture day and your stress level is at an all-time high. You didn’t sleep the night before because you were too anxious to see how the calves would act and how the pictures would turn out. The day is finally over with all calves pictured and all crew members still speaking to one another, and that’s when you realize picture day was a success.



img_2343My name is Jaci Steffener and I am a senior this year at Western Illinois University. I grew up on a small farm in Sperry, Iowa and I have had a passion for agriculture since the beginning. I transferred to WIU from Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa where I majored in Ag Business Management. I have greatly enjoyed my time here at WIU, but May is right around the corner and I will be graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in Ag Business and a minor in Communication. My college experience is one I’ll never forget. As always, it’s a great day to be a Leatherneck!


4 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Livestock Picture Day

  1. maisielangholff

    I love readying about things like this! Growing up in the industry I have always understood the amount of work goes into these type of things, but also how much you can learn from it. Thank you for the great read!


  2. mroconnor13

    Great blog Jaci, I see that you really have some experience with picturing cattle and livestock. I recently had an online sale and I was there to take the pictures and lets just say picturing baby pigs is one of the most frustrating things I think anyone could possibly do. I see there are some similar steps that we all take no matter what species we are attempting to picture.


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