Tomarata teenager, Jennifer Thomas now knows what Stephen Donald felt like when he was called on by the All Blacks to save national honour.

For last year she gained second place in the Northern Districts Young Handlers competition, carrying with it the chance to compete at the Royal Agricultural Show in Hawke’s Bay. But then when the time came the winner was unable to make the trip, so Jennifer stepped up and surprised herself by taking out the national Dairy Parader of the Year title.

“I was up against people who were older than me, but I had been in bigger rings,” she says.

And the yearling she had to parade was an Ayrshire, much larger than the smaller Jerseys she usually shows.

“The animals were selected by putting their names in a hat and us drawing one out. We only had 20 minutes to work with them before we took them into the ring,” she says.

“So you don’t know the animal as well as you could and you know that they could play up at any random moment.

“But I got one that was really tame – a little darling.”

As part of the Royal Agricultural Society’s Young Handlers’ programme she also took part in judging dairy stock at the show.

“It was really scary as I had to speak into the microphone,” she says.

She had to choose the best of four cows and four calves and give reasons for her selection.

“My uncle was judging there so I was trying to get pointers off him through the day,” she says.

Jennifer has been involved with showing calves for many years, regularly taking part in calf club while at Tomarata School then moving on to showing cows as well as calves at local A & P shows. She has followed in the footsteps of both her mother, Heather, and sister, Sarah, 22.

“But it was never so serious as it is now,” Heather says.

Another of Jennifer’s motivations was the fact her best friend from school, Michaela McCracken, was showing dairy animals.

Then she moved into the beef classes, showing French breed, Salers owned by local farmers, Karen and Bruce Woolley and encouraged her friend to come along and help.

Usually Jennifer will be showing Jersey cows and calves from her uncle, Graeme Collins’, nearby Waiteitei Jersey stud. She has four cows trained up now and is showing three with her favourite, Beatrice or Bea for short. She also has two calves trained for the show ring.

“I’m usually here every day after school, brushing and feeding them to keep them in show condition,” she says.

“Every judge is different, and you don’t know what they are looking for. But one of the judges in Hawke’s Bay told me they liked how I looked as though I enjoyed what I was doing.

“And they said the animal can’t look perfect without that.”

As well as a cup and ribbon her title win will see her attend the Royal Adelaide Show starting on August 31. She’s looking forward to experiencing any differences there may be.

“It will probably be indoor, and I want to see what the main breeds being shown are,” she says.

“I don’t know how they handle animals there. I could do it how we do here and be totally wrong.”

But until then it’s a busy time with her showing up to three cows and two calves at the Whangarei, Warkworth, Arapahue, Helensville and Kumeu shows.

“You’ve got to know your animals and talk to them to calm them down.

“Make sure they know you’re there because they love cuddles. They get nervous too with the crowds but they like the extra food they get and that they’re well treated.”

Jennifer completed her last year at Rodney College in 2017 studying English, biology, geography, statistics and physical education. She’s applied to study for a Bachelor of Education at Auckland University’s Whangarei campus with the aim of becoming a primary school teacher.

“I’ve always liked the thought of teaching and have an aunty and cousin who are teachers,” she says.

“Maybe when I’m older I’ll get into farming because I hope to have my own stud. I’d like to start small and build the numbers up, and I’m sure my uncle will have lots of advice.”