A day at the county fair, or: Those who do not learn from history

[Warning: If you are troubled by the fact that some people raise livestock in order to eat it, this post is not for you. Apart from that: potential rural American idyll overload.]

The tiny midway at my nieces' county fair.

The tiny midway at my nieces’ county fair. About 50,000 people live in that county, so the potential audience is small.

We’ve had two weeks of irresistibly beautiful weather; it seems a little cool for August but I have no objection to the fall coming a bit early. The tomatoes and the sweet corn have been wonderful. According to the state agricultural extension, this summer was fantastic for crops, and so the drive out to the town where my parents grew up was one solid pleasure to the eyes. I’ve described this drive before. Even if I don’t farm, I don’t like to see crops suffering, but the corn is glorious, which means, of course — poor farmers — that prices will be low. The sky was gorgeous, too — I sometimes think the reason to live in Florida was to teach me to look at the sky, which I always used to ignore when I lived here before.

We drove out for the county fair — more specifically, because Niece A was exhibiting animals there with her 4-H club. She was showing rabbits she bred, a two-year-old dairy steer she got as a gift, and one of the neighbor’s heifers.

This is one of those potential family tension points, and as usual, I put my foot right into it by planning to go. One could argue that I’m not the problem — my assumptions are normal, it’s just my family that’s strange, but in my family that is the minority viewpoint, i.e., mine. I wanted to go out to support my niece. My father, whose early life goal was to get off the farm where he grew up, doesn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily spend time with cows. I confess that I generally share that stance; the last time I helped out with milking when a neighbor was on vacation was when I was fifteen, and I also said “never again.” On the other hand, my sister milks for the neighbor (and used to milk in a milking parlor) and their lives are fundamentally bound up in the agricultural cycle, so I don’t see what point my refusal to notice would make, either. And, as I said, it was a glorious day, marred only by listening for the seven hundred forty third time to my father’s sermon about the evils of cows. At the very least, I learned four or five things to look for if I ever need to buy a beef cow.

A rabbit from our fair. Not A's.

A rabbit from our fair. Not A’s.

I am not much like A, temperamentally; I’m more like her younger sister, B. Maybe that’s why, aside from the fact of auntish pride (naches, as someone reminded me this week, so it’s totally legitimate), I look at so much of what she does with such astonishment. Not so much the rabbits, although A herself was annoyed with her rabbits, several of whom developed the wrong color claw and were thus disqualified from competition. They had good skirts (the part next to the flank) and dewlaps and she got a blue ribbon but did not place at all. I think she’s planning to keep these rabbits as pets, but I don’t think she’s planning to continue in rabbit breeding in the future.

But the way she deals with cows — I admire it. She did pretty well with her dairy steer, “Jack Jack.” A dairy steer is a kind of a weird thing. A dairy farmer doesn’t usually want a lot of male animals around. The cows they milk, and maybe they have one bull to breed with, but steers around here were usually killed at birth, or perhaps one or two were spared and raised as beef for the family. Traditionally they made up a small part of the country’s beef supply — as my brother said to me when I asked him if he was going to butcher it himself, “Holstein tastes like shit” — but with beef prices rising they are increasingly being dehorned, castrated, and raised to maturity. A got this one as a gift for some chores she did for the neighbor two years ago, and this was his year for market.

Showing Holstein steers at my nieces' fair. A is not in this picture.

Showing Holstein steers at my nieces’ fair.

The animals are shown in the livestock hall at the fairgrounds, which has been raked, mucked out and slightly dampened to keep the dust down. The kids are very solicitous of their animals — when I got to the stall, A was blow-drying Jack Jack’s hindquarters (she had just shampooed them clean) to show him off to his best advantage. All of the animals in the same gender, sale and weight class are shown together. They are led into the building, they walk around in a circle, the kids pose them (with little prods that they can use to move their feet or alternately, stroke them), the judge looks at them, they walk around in a circle again, then pause again for another round of closer examination, and then the judge grades them and explains the rankings. Each class takes about twenty minutes to evaluate. A showed her steer in the general evaluation for size and breeding, and then again in showmanship, where the exhibitor demonstrates her knowledge of the breed.

Jack Jack was not in a good mood that day. I have to say that if someone was blowdrying my ass, I might be perturbed as well. He was generally okay in the first round, and A had him under control, just, but in the showmanship round, he dragged her around. You see, Jack weighs 1384 lbs, and A, who’s thirteen, just crossed the 100 lb boundary this summer. The fair has adults around because with the junior exhibitors, this kind of weight ratio imbalance is not unusual. A didn’t get to tell the judge much about her steer, because she could not get him to stand still. Eventually, he tried to mount another steer, and my brother, who probably weighs about 250 lbs, interfered and calmed him down. When she got out of the ring and wrestled Jack Jack into his stall, with her father’s help, she was shaking her foot and her hand.

“Lead chewed the hell out of my hand,” she said, “and goddamned Jack Jack, he stepped on me!”

“Language, A,” my sister-in-law said.

I didn’t say anything, but I doubt I’d have had the guts to keep trying, repeatedly, to body check a steer thirteen times my weight. I’d have given up once I saw it had no effect. And cursed anyway. But she stuck with it.

Jack Jack got third best in his steer weight class class (red ribbon) but A got only a white ribbon for showmanship, probably because she didn’t have him under control. He sold at auction at the end of the fair for $2800, I’m guessing to a Chicago stockyard.

Jack Jack’s future may be short, but I think A’s is promising. Although I didn’t see it, when I saw my sister-in-law later in the week, she said that A got reserve champion (second best in the whole fair) for her Swiss heifer calf.

I saw A joking around with the neighbor’s son, who is a year younger and was also showing a steer and a calf, so I asked SIL if there was any chance of a romance.

“No,” SIL said. “No, no, no. She better not marry a farmer.”

~ by Servetus on September 3, 2016.

41 Responses to “A day at the county fair, or: Those who do not learn from history”

  1. why does the wrong color claw matter in rabbit competition, and is it something you can control?

    • it’s considered a blemish. You can potentially breed it out — but don’t ask me how, exactly. I should ask A when I see her.

  2. Ah, the county fair..I was in the grand stand before I could walk. (my Dad’s uncle raced sulkies so my parents took me to f

  3. Ergh…

    Fair races all over the state to watch. I mostly remember the corn dogs. Maybe next year I’ll enter some preserves like Aunt Bea and you can come to watch 😁

  4. Ah, I remember those days fondly! I never showed, but two of my nephews did. I remember that Zach’s steer was about twice his height, but docile. I think he won his class at the local fair & got to show again at the state fair when my sister & her family lived in Alabama.
    I worked as a 4-H Program Assistant here in Georgia for over 8 years but never got to help with the local livestock show. 😦. Best job I ever had!

    p.s. Can you tell I’m a farm kid?

    • There was a kid in one of the steer classes (not dairy) who was only 2/3 the height of his animal — and he got stepped on and he cried. But he kept it together. I’m not sure how it works with this fair, b/c the WI state fair was earlier in the summer. But as the fair ends with the auction, it doesn’t matter.

      I was just looking at a job ad for that job — employed by the state agricultural extension, I think? — I don’t think I have enough cred to apply, lol. Not being a farm kid myself🙂

      • Don’t sell yourself short, Serv. I was 19 & had taken a break from college when I was hired by our local county Extension office. The main thing the county director was looking for was a desire to help kids. These days, 4-H is about more than “cows and cooking” – if a kid has an interest, there’s a project for them, all the way up to rocket science. If you know anything about teaching, you’re qualified. I really enjoyed my years with them.

        • Good to know! (although judging from this particular fair, the kids are still more interested in the traditional topics)

  5. You are a proud aunt — and it sounds like A really rocked. She is pretty fearless, taking on an animal that is so huge! We used to go to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto every fall, and I had a weird attraction to the cattle section – your father would be disgusted with me, no doubt. I loved walking around watching them being primped and coiffed (yes, blow dried, clipped, you name it) and many of the exhibitors were young teens. I got a kick out of watching them. I had a bit of a laugh at your description of Jack Jack’s naughty behaviour. It sounds like he was looking for a bit of action?

    • Dad objects to the regularity of cows and how sensitive they are. If you have cows, you are their slaves and if you go on vacation, for instance, and get someone to milk for you, they get all persnickety and don’t let down and get mastitis and stuff. Also, they will not do anything for you that they don’t already want to do and outweigh you and so on.

      The judge, on the other hand, kept talking in wildly enthusiastic tones about these cows’ rear ends and how they looked when they were walking and so on …

      Not sure what was up w/Jack Jack as he has no equipment left. Poor thing.

  6. 4-H…haven’t heard that phrase for awhile. Brings back memories of my oldest brother and all his animals. Sounds like a fun day.

  7. Thank you for the glimpse of rural life in the Midwest. I have a rancher friend so I am familiar with the concept of raising beef for food. My kids made friends with a calf named Ralph and when they learned what his fate was to be, my oldest daughter became a vegetarian for three years. As for having a blow dryer aimed at my ass, sounds interesting. Especially if it’s cold outside. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.🙂

    • yeah, the sad reality of animal consumption hits everyone differently. Calves are harder on the emotions than steers, but A’s calf is a heifer so, barring unanticipated developments, will be around for a while🙂 I think they have really beautiful eyes.

      re: trying it with the blow dryer — I will keep that in mind next time it’s really cold here …🙂

      • I try to buy meat and dairy from sources that I know to be more humane, rather than factory farming. I know that luxury isn’t available to many. Sometimes though, if at a restaurant or someone’s home, I just have to hope they didn’t suffer needlessly. I LOVE animals. I also know what happens to baby farm animals. The problem isn’t in eating meat, it’s that somehow in this this country we allow brutal, factory farms to flourish. That needs to change.

        • We also are mostly eating meat that dad harvested or where we know how it was raised and where. Not possible for people in cities. No one is in favor of brutality, I think.

          • I would hope not, but why is it legal for them to exist and operate that way.

            • ?

            • Everyone would define brutality differently, so there is a sort of least common denominator that the big meat producers follow. As sentiments change, laws change. You can kind of see this in the fights about whether kosher slaughter should be permissible. When the laws of kashrut were developed, it was considered a humane way to kill (very sharp knife to the throat, exsanguination). Nowadays, a lot of people think it isn’t and believe the animal should be stunned first. Several countries have tried to prohibit (or have prohibited — I don’t follow the details that closely) kosher slaughter on that basis. What is happening in the US seems to be that big meat producers are realizing that humane husbandry, slaughter, etc., is a selling point for some consumers.

  8. I’ve always thought the kids involved in 4H were some of the hardest working and responsible kids around. It sounds like a fun day. I prefer county fairs to the larger state fairs… and I really need to see a duck race. (Though it might give Hubby ideas!)

    • Farm kids tend to be really responsible in that particular sense that they know that important things depend on them: animals’ lives, the milk supply, the meat supply, etc. (In other ways A is a very frivolous individual, though. A little bit like her aunt in her tendency to get hyperfocused on things that interest her. So she feeds, waters, and mucks out her animals twice daily like clockwork but practice her flute??)

  9. This is one of the funniest things you’ve written in a while. Having watched a lot of livestock competitions here in Texas, I was laughing at who was going to win…Jack Jack or your stubborn niece. Kudos to her.

  10. Coming in so late here (I’ve had out of town guests), but I just had to share this song that your story reminded me of… by Corb Lund called “Cows Around”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nk8-MqnHlw

  11. Wow, your niece has all my respect!!!!!
    As much as I enjoy hearing the story about one particular cow that always annoyed my mums grandmother with it’s tail I was thankful cows weren’t around anymore at my grandparents farm when I was growing up, because they really complex animals and I was always a bit afraid around cows and horses (my sister inherited all the ‘Pferdeverstand’ from our great grandfather I guess).
    But I loved our own Stallhasen which my father raised and I would have loved to own a donkey, which was a possibility at one point but was sabotaged by my dad😦

    • My main insight into cows that you might as well try to figure out what they are going to do and then cooperate, because they sure as heck will not do anything they don’t already want to do already. Oh, and that they are really sensitive to the environment around them (sounds, especially).

      If I were going to get any animal at this point it would be a hedgehog. There are a lot of little bunnies in our yard that eat the bottoms off the shrubs.

      • Yes, but this wasn’t an option for my great grandmother because the cows had to be milked (that’s what the one cow didn’t like and always got angry about).
        Evil bunnies!!!! My sister who’s in charge of our garden fights against an mole at the moment (like the guys from Berlin Station lol). I like the little fella’s but my sister wishes them death and damnation whenever she sees one of the molehills🙂

        • yeah, that is the worst situation, cows that don’t want to be milked. Which is counter-intuitive, but my sister in law complains about it from time to time.

          We have a groundhog here, too, that my dad is engaged in constant combat with.

  12. I’ve never been to a fair like that before. Your niece sounds kickass! Good quality.🙂 Oh and this sentence just made me laugh out loud: ” I have to say that if someone was blowdrying my ass, I might be perturbed as well.”

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