Exhibiting Excellence at a County Fair

Show livestock like a pro with these tips for selecting, preparing, and presenting animals at the county fair.

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Few events are as uniquely summertime as a county fair. With their emphasis on livestock and the young people who’ve spent a large portion of the season preparing for them, county fairs have been an end-of-summer tradition in the United States for well over 100 years.

The history of the fair likely dates back to Roman days, as a series of religious holidays complete with games, competitions, and festivities. During the Middle Ages, fairs evolved into events more resembling markets, and were often combined with feasts and celebrations dedicated to particular saints — a combination that endured for centuries. As time passed, fairs turned from their religious roots toward a focus on agriculture and education. One of the first agricultural fairs in the U.S. was held in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, and consisted entirely of a sheep exhibition.

From those roots, animal exhibition grew in the U.S., and rural communities across the country began hosting their own agricultural fairs. In 1841, the first state fair was organized in Syracuse, New York. From a two-day event, the New York State Fair has grown into a two-week event — still held at the end of summer — and is one of the most popular events in the country.

Today, the backbone of any agricultural fair, whether at the county, state, or national level, is the exhibition and showing of livestock. County fairs are generally put on by the agricultural extension service agents based in that county, in cooperation with a county fair board. Most fairs focus mainly on youth participation, but many have adult classes as well. If you and your family are gearing up for your first fair season, here are some tips to get you started.

Fair Expectations

One of the biggest positives to showing livestock at a fair is the poise and confidence young people can develop during the process. Having the skill and self-assurance to direct and control a large animal with a mind and a will of its own can be helpful later in life. And, in showmanship competitions, competitors learn to answer the judges’ questions with poise, looking a judge directly in the eyes when speaking, and communicating confidently and respectfully. Learning to formulate answers to questions concisely and on the spot can make all the difference in acing a job interview or getting a promotion.

Blue Ribbon Winning Gold Comet Hen Chicken Shown at County Fair

On the downside, anything involving livestock can be expensive. Animals need feed, veterinary care, and shelter, at minimum. Especially for larger animals, those needs can become costly. Purchasing animals can also be expensive. Pedigreed stock, bred specifically for the show ring, can cost thousands of dollars. But nearly every county extension agent can tell you a story about a $150 calf that, in the right hands, was transformed into a blue-ribbon show animal.

On the plus side, there are many opportunities to exhibit smaller stock that don’t require as much in the way of facilities and feed, such as rabbits and poultry. Both of these can be maintained with less initial cash outlay, and on a much smaller scale.

It’s always disappointing to put in a lot of effort and not wind up with a blue ribbon. But looking at each show as a learning opportunity can take away some of the sting. Most county fair judges have a sincere desire to help exhibitors improve their livestock selection and handling skills. Many will take the time to explain the reasons for their decision and offer constructive, in-depth feedback. County agents work very hard to recruit experienced, objective judges from outside the home county whenever possible.

Selecting for Show

If you’ve decided to involve your family in the fun and hard work of a fair, but you’ve never selected an animal for show, here are some things to keep in mind. While each species is different, and will have different points of focus, there are a few basic guidelines that apply to all animals.

Have a plan. Some families select show animals from their own breeding or commercial stock, while others purchase animals from a breeder. Either way, go into the situation with clear objectives. Is the goal to win a Grand Championship, or to simply gain experience? If you’re purchasing from a breeder, decide ahead of time how much you’re willing to spend, and stick to that budget. Above all, be honest when it comes to the exhibitor’s level of experience. Evaluate your own stock and determine which animals are strong-willed and pushy, and which are more laid-back and easier to work with, and trust that a breeder will know this about their stock as well. Nothing ruins the enjoyment of a fair faster than an animal that’s ill-suited to the exhibitor’s level of experience.

Evaluate carefully. Structural soundness is the foundation for any successful show animal; don’t be swayed by an attractive animal that lacks the desired structure. Evaluate all potential animals from the ground up. Start at the feet and work your way up, making sure the legs are straight, strong, and conformationally correct. From there, evaluate musculature and the overall look of the animal, taking care to avoid animals with a coarse appearance. (Coarseness can be hard to determine until you’ve had some practice, but, in general, the animal should look sleek and thrifty.) Animals should look appropriately structured for their genders, meaning a female should look feminine for that species and a male more masculine.

Don’t overlook nutrition. This isn’t to say you need to invest in an expensive show feed, but there’s little sense in selecting a nice animal and then not feeding it properly. Inadequate nutrition will result in poor musculature development, as well as a dull coat that no amount of grooming can alleviate.

Good grooming. There are certain criteria for grooming and “fitting” each of the livestock species. An entire art and science revolves around clipping show calves to maximize their strong points and minimize flaws, which is beyond the scope of this article, but the basic premise is sound. Evaluate the animal honestly, and work to bring out their strong points. Don’t wait until the morning of the show to start grooming. Make sure the animal is clean and well-clipped beforehand, so that only a touch-up is needed on the day of the fair. And don’t forget about the exhibitor’s grooming. Exhibitors should be clean, polished, and professional looking, with shirts tucked in and a belt. Avoid distracting jewelry or ball caps.

Practice makes perfect. It’s an old cliché that success in the show ring begins at home, but, as with most clichés, it contains a kernel of wisdom. It’s essential to practice showing at home, so that the exhibitor and animal become a solid team before ever stepping onto the fair grounds. When in the ring, the exhibitor’s focus should be on the animal, but they’ll be evaluated from the moment they step into the ring, whether the judge is looking directly at them or not. An exhibitor needs to develop the ability to know where the judge is located out of the corner of their eye. That way, they can make sure they’re presenting the animal to its best potential, while never losing focus. Developing the ability to focus and not become distracted by other competitors or animals is crucial. Often, the animal can tell when you lose focus, and that’s the moment they’ll choose to act up.

Come equipped. Make sure all equipment is ready to go before the day of the show. Halters and other tack should fit well and be clean, and the show stick for showing cattle should be the right length for the handler, and also long enough to reach the necessary areas on the calf without being cumbersome. When showing cattle or hogs, it’s customary to carry a brush or comb into the ring; make sure these are clean and can be tucked away in a back pocket without getting in the way.

A Blue Ribbon Experience

There’s plenty to gain from participating in a fair, including new interests, a deeper knowledge of the agricultural industry, and connections to a strong community of like-minded individuals. Plus, it’s a lot of fun! Anyone who puts in the time and effort to make the most of their fair experiences will walk away with much more than a blue ribbon.

4-H and FFA Programs

4-H and the National FFA Organization are the basis for many of the youth category exhibitions that take place during a fair. These organizations seek to give young competitors the mentoring they need to succeed in a variety of areas, including livestock showing. No matter where you live, a local university extension office can put you in touch with the right people to help get you started in your area of interest.

While a number of classes are restricted to 4-H and FFA members, many fairs also offer open classes that are available to any competitor who meets the requirements set by the county fair board. Open classes offer opportunities in a variety of fields, such as food, photography, and visual arts.

“The fair is intended to be a showcase of learning, not just competition for a ribbon,” says 4-H Youth Development Agent Michelle Beran. The competitors who take the time and effort to learn, grow, and develop skills that they can use throughout their lifetimes benefit the most.

Talk with an extension agent in your area to learn more about 4-H and FFA and get involved in local chapters, or visit 4-H and FFA.

By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. By night, she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric, where she handles all sorts of livestock and livestock challenges.