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How we cater to our cattle

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Some of these bovine beasts really have it good.

By Steve Doyle

Having spent, like many boys and girls in Shelby County’s history, my formative years in keen observation of cows, I am continually amazed by the devotion families have to them, how delicately they treat them and care for them. Sometimes I have to wonder if some among us of have converted to Hindu, so revered are their bovine gods and goddesses. At least cows aren’t allowed to roam the streets anywhere this side of New Delhi.

Still, many of our neighbors have close, personal relationships with their cows. They give them names and treat them like family, although the only time I’ve seen a cow attend a family dinner was an entree.

But never was such devotion and care displayed on a grander stage than among those cattle bedded down in the West Wing of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center during the state fair.

Now, true confession here, I never raised a calf to a cow in an effort to put it in a beauty contest at a fair and win a ribbon. I knew plenty of kids who did, and I admired their abilities to gussy up Elsie and make her look more like a madam than milking machinery. They knew what they were doing.

I, on the other hand, simply tolerated the cows as a necessary evil that I must tolerate to meet basic needs, such as, oh, eating. I did my chores around them – tossed them silage and hay, toted and poured their milk (in the “olden” days) and even washed up after them (the equipment, not the cows) – but our relationship ended there. Other than an occasional calf that I tried to pretend was a pony, I never cozied up to any of them.

Sure, sometimes I had to go find them at milking time or round up a stray or help funnel them into a pen or something. My brother once even participated during that wonderful ceremony when a bull becomes a steer and helped Dr. Birch retrieve his surgically removed items.

But you never would confuse us with the guys who hung around the blue ribbons. We were not part of the show.

Still, I am amazed to see the care and feeding – literally – show cows get. I’m awed by what horses go through before a show – don’t ask me about goats and that neck-stretching thing are about – but I understand how cows operate. I grasp what I see happening to make them competitive in the arena.

In fact, on a recent stroll through the West Wing during the fair, I got to see the best of hundreds of mostly well-behaved-but-really-pampered the cows, and it was obvious immediately that these were not the herds of my youth.

My wife, a city-girl-turned-horse-farmer, was amazed and asked questions. My kids thought it was all like a farm book. And, come to think of it, maybe some of these cows were from the group that starred in Click Clack Moo. They seemed as if they might be able to type out a sentence here and there.

My wife: Honey, how do they judge the winners in cattle shows?

Me: I have no idea.

Her, pointing: Why is that part of the cow so big?

Me: Well, if she were in a milking parlor, you would see.

As we strolled the aisles inside the makeshift barn, we learned there was no detail too extreme to ensure you were bringing the best and brightest Bossies to the public competition.

There were small sheds holding feed. Special feeding and watering systems let them dine at their leisure. The hay and straw mattresses put down were better quality than what we used to bale from our alfalfa fields. It was mostly clean, too, or at least it didn’t stay soiled too long.

There were stanchions in which the cows could stand for preshow preparations, and one or two farm headquarters had old-fashion milking machines, which I’m sure had some sort of portable compressor to provide the suction.

And – I swear – I saw one guy with an electric razor shaving a cow to make its hide fine.

But all that was nothing compared to the humans tending to these cows. They weren’t going to make the cows sleep anywhere they wouldn’t sleep themselves. Many had cots. Some had small portable apartments. I saw one guy asleep in a recliner while he held a baby (also sleeping) in his arms. Did I mention there were maybe 2,000 people and 5,000 cows all around? Surely he was counting sheep.

Now, through all of this, there was one thing I couldn’t quite decipher. Did these cows really know how good they had it and that they were there to be judged?

The reason I say this is that some of the cows were acting like cows. They were eating, reclining, chewing their cuds and generally doing what you might see them do under a sugar maple on a hot August day.

And one thing I’ve always known about a cow: When it comes to going No. 2, anytime-anyplace-no-matter-what-else-is-going-on is No. 1. Which is why some of them walked casually on a lead rope among the patrons and just played like Hansel and Gretel, leaving an easily spotted trail home. Only these weren’t bread crumbs splattering and causing some of us to do a doo-doo dosey-doe.

My wife (pointing again): That cow over there is being disgusting.

It was lying down on its fresh and well-fluffed hay and moving only whatever muscles it took to do its most foul business.

Me: Well, cows are very good at that. They never seem to mind.

I saw a few cows that had ribbons on their stalls. Some of the elaborate signs above them shouted the name and success of their owners. There wasn’t a rooster nearby, but there was a lot of well-deserved crowing.

But, if not for that, I had no clue who might have won prizes at the fair or why.

I can just tell you that when it comes to cattle shows, the best one I’ve seen was in the barn area at the state fair.