As rained poured down on the midway rides and games Sunday at the Schoharie County Sunshine Fair, the barns were packed with the area’s finest animals and livestock. Owners huffed and sweat as they shoveled manure, pitched hay, and lined the open cow pens with fresh straw as rain poured down, creating muddy pathways and puddles.
The usual fair entertainment of rides, games and food was a bit of a washout as the cloudy skies and steady drizzle kept the crowds away. There were no lines and most rides had only a handful of passengers. Other fairgoers took cover in the music tent, exhibition halls, and barns. The main grandstand event of the day, the tractor pull, had to be canceled due to the soggy conditions on the gravel track, said fair President Doug Cater.
Though the rain brought disappointment, Cater was happy to announce that Saturday was a successful first day with attendance higher than opening day last year.
Meanwhile, inside the dairy barns, cows lazed about, munching on grain, soaking up a breeze from the fans set up around the barn, and enjoying the royal treatment they’ll be receiving this week as they’re prepped to look their absolute best for showing and judging. In an area where farming is a tradition that stretches back for generations, agriculture is still the backbone of the annual county fair.
“I’ve been showing here at the fair since … forever,” said Shannon Sears, 18-year-old dairy farmer who just graduated from Cherry Valley-Springfield High School
“You were 3 months old when you first came here,” her mother, Becky, shouted from the other side of the barn as she trimmed another cow’s tail hair with an electric razor.
The Sears own the 225-acre Ira Moos Holstein farm in Middlefield, located about 15 minutes outside of Cooperstown. Shannon Sears said they milk about 45 Holsteins total, and own a variety of other animals including rabbits and goats.
Their cows have placed and won at local, national, and world dairy cow shows.
But what is it, exactly, that makes a cow a show winner?
“For a mature cow, your main focus is the udder,” explained Sears, who was dressed to work in a T-shirt, jeans, and steel-toed boots. She explained that a heifer — a female that has not given birth — cannot be milked until she’s birthed her first calf. Calves and heifers can be shown, but a quality cow eats a lot and produces the most milk.
There are other good qualities the cows are bred for, Sears said as she walked over to Durango, a red and white yearling with a shiny coat and long eyelashes.
A good cow is healthy, has straight legs, and has a level top line or back, which Sears demonstrated as she ran her finger along Durango’s straight spine. The ribs should sit flat, not wide and round like those of beef cattle. For a show, the cows get their coats trimmed short and they’re bathed with expensive shampoos to show off these qualities.
“Showing cows is kinda like a beauty pageant,” Sears said as Durango nuzzled against her hip. “You get your hair and nails done, and so do the cows.”
And the cows thoroughly enjoy their pampering, Sears added.
“Most people might think that we’re crazy, we don’t even buy stuff that nice for ourselves,” she said with a chuckle.
In the next barn over, Rick Welsh, 44, tended to cattle that will be shown by his girlfriend’s 11-year-old son Tyler Lloyd. Welsh said the boy has been so excited for his first show that he’s barely slept, and had to be sent home to get a nap in before the big day.
Welsh is a dairy nutritionist who grew up on a dairy farm in Pine Plains and went to college to study dairy farming. He said that without the enthusiasm and commitment from the young farmers, the barns at the fair would be nearly empty.
“They’re here to present a positive image of the dairy industry to the public,” Welsh said as he stood next to several massive black and white Holsteins.
Youngsters who do the best in the showmanship portion of the fair have clean cows that walk on command, which proves how much time and effort they have spent prepping the animal for the show.
While the cattle take up most of the barn space, there are also lovingly raised chickens, goats, sheep, rabbits, and pigs competing for blue ribbons. In one barn, a goat received a haircut. In another, pigs of all breeds lay in their pens for a midday nap.
One large pink sow munched voraciously on grain while her seven tiny piglets nursed and rolled about in the hay. A sign hanging above the group dubbed them “Sweetie and the Sweetarts.”
“This is probably something I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” said Sears, who plans to attend SUNY Cobleskill in the fall to study animal science. Eventually, she hopes to work on a large dairy farm, an exhausting job that she’s already fully prepared for.
“You work twenty-four seven with no holidays, no time off,” and the business is not as lucrative as it once was, Sears said. But that doesn’t deter her from her passion.
“Support your local farmers,” she said. “It’s not easy what we do, because it takes a certain mindset.”