A trip to the Hopkinton Fair was a wonderful way to spend Labor Day weekend. The cows, goats, pigs, and sheep were spotless. Food was everywhere. (Remember: Calories from the blooming onions and corn dogs don’t count at the fair.) Local companies put their best foot forward, and midway rides and games beckon. Cowboys tested their skills on the backs of bucking bulls, and the weather was perfect – most of the time.
The fair is over for this year and all the livestock are back at the farm but I want to tell you that farmers love the Hopkinton Fair, too. It gives us a chance to proudly show our livestock, and admire animals from other farms. Farming can be a lonely job, so we relish the chance to talk shop with each other. But the fair is no holiday for us. Miles Smith Farm, the Highland Riders 4-H club, and all the farms and clubs that compete, started preparations months ago. In May, we decide which animals will be shown this year, and children register their 4-H animals. Physical exams are scheduled.
In June, the cattle have to be certified by a veterinarian as being healthy and get their rabies shots.
The animals also must have clear identification. Each cow has either a tattoo (usually numbers and letters, not dragons or angels) or an ear tag that corresponds with the official paperwork. Poultry have leg bands. Without these, the animal would get sent home.
The week before the fair, animals are shampooed and scrubbed two or three times to remove built-up summer dirt; tattoos are checked to make sure they are legible; missing or dirty ear tags are replaced. We also make sure the cow is still “people-friendly.” Just like children, as cattle get older, their personalities can change. Animals from our farm are chosen by temperament. This year we dropped two from the short list: Henry, a yearling Highlander steer, and Riley, a 2-year-old heifer, because they become difficult to handle.
The day before the fair opens, we trailer the animals to the fairgrounds. But before they are unloaded, each critter is inspected by a veterinarian, and if the animal looks or acts sick or the paperwork is not in order, it can be sent home.
Once the animals are settled into their stalls, there is still more work. Like humans, cattle eat and drink at the fair. Like waiters, we deliver hay, cotton candy and taffy apples to each animal, but they drink from a common trough. (I'm just kidding about the sweets.)
Even though all the animals at the fair have been examined, our cows don't drink from the same trough as cows from other farms, kind of the way a family might pass around a Coke among themselves, but not with strangers. So we bring our own trough and fill it from a faucet, usually at the end of the barn. Then, several times a day, we walk each cow to the water, asking (sometimes begging) fairgoers to clear the crowded aisles so the cows can pass. It hurts when a cow steps on your foot or knocks you down, so do pay attention when you hear, “Cow coming,” and step aside, please.
After cows eat, manure is inevitable. If you hear, “Phone call!,” that typically doesn’t mean someone’s cell phone is buzzing. It's a fairground euphemism requiring immediate action.
When you see farmers sitting around at the fair, it’s not only because we are tired, but we are waiting for the next opportunity to feed, water, or clean up after our livestock. And we usually don't have to wait very long.
For those of you who were watching for a calf from pregnant Missy, a 10-year-old Highlander cow, we are still waiting. Once the calf is born, I'll let you know!