The hickory smoke has barely cleared from the 110th annual Maryland State Fair, but it's never too early to begin planning for the 111th.
Next year, do yourself a favor. Take a few hours off from the glitz and the grease along the Midway and spend some time with the family in the Cow Palace.
Sure it's scary. Those cows are big, and there are a lot of them. So think of it like a thrill ride, like the Ferris Wheel. Only it's all free.
David Brauning, agricultural superintendent at the fair, said a Holstein cow can weigh up to 1,700 pounds. And there were 1,085 dairy and beef cattle in the Cow Palace yesterday, the last day of the fair.
And they're messy. Worse, most of them are tied up so that their messy ends are uncomfortably close to where city slickers have to walk. So just watch where you step, like in the Fun House.
But go, because there aren't any better looking cattle in the state than these groomed and pampered beasts. And they're surprisingly calm and gentle, too, sort of like Zona's snakes, just up the hill.
One Brown Swiss cow stood by quietly, with a slightly bored look, while Brauning ran his hand down her backside, explaining what the judges look for in a champion's udder.
"The mammary system should be strongly attached, high here in the back and straight across the bottom," he said. After all, top competitive cows like those at the Cow Palace yesterday must carry 75 pounds of milk into the milking parlor, and will give 140 pounds a day.
Ask, and you'll learn that a champion cow also should have a straight back and a wide, large-capacity middle, because the more grass she can eat and digest, the more milk she can produce.
She also should stand strong and high on her feet, and her legs should be straight from hip to hoof, so as to carry her weight comfortably and efficiently. Sagging, crooked cows just don't last.
"Like a machine," Brauning said, "if one thing is bad, it will lead to something else wearing out. It's like with an athlete's knees."
With dairymen getting squeezed between the price of milk and the cost of feed, land and hired help, the dairy cow business is a "numbers game, an efficiency game," he said. The one with the best, most efficient cows wins.
The cows at state fairs like Maryland's have been getting better and better looking over the years, said George Edgerton, 73.
And he should know. "This is my 29th consecutive year with the Maryland State Fair, and I showed three years before that, so that makes 32 years showing cattle here."
He vowed 15 years ago he'd give it up. But people keep asking him to show their cattle.
Edgerton, once a herdsman for dairymen in Frederick and Chestertown, now lives in Mathias, W. Va. He was in the Cow Palace yesterday watching over 15 head of Brown Swiss cows, including six of his own Pleasant Ridge Farm cows and nine from Sand Rock Farm in Emmitsburg. Two of them were winners this year.
He showed his first calf as a 4-H Club member 63 years ago at the New York State Fair in Syracuse.
"The cattle that used to win when I was a boy, you wouldn't even bring out any more," he said.
Today's show cattle are "more attractive animals," Edgerton said, largely due to the widespread use of artificial insemination, which allows breeders to mate their cows with the best bulls available in the U.S. and Canada.
"When I was a boy, you had a bull and he served the whole herd," Edgerton said.
From all appearances, Edgerton takes good care of his cows at the fair, feeding and washing them, picking up after them and, well, talking to them.
"Every one of them has a different personality. They're just like people. You may not think so, but they like to be talked to, to have their ears scratched and be patted on the head. And pretty near every one of them knows their name," he said. "They know who you're talking to."
At night during the fair, Edgerton settles the cows down on their straw beds, then settles himself down on a mattress in his pickup truck for a few hours of shut-eye before the first cows need milking.
At a show, you see, the cows can't all be milked at once, like on the farm. They have to be milked at just the right moment, so that their udders look just right when it's time to enter the ring.
"You want a good amount of milk in them," he said. "You don't want to over bag them."
While he waits between appearances in the ring, Edgerton bides his time caring for his cows, greeting friends and enjoying an occasional ice cream cone or a glass of milk, for he knows where his bread is buttered.
"If everybody drank as much milk as I do, there wouldn't be any surplus," Edgerton said. "It's good for you. And when you consider what a gallon of soft drink costs you, with no nourishment, a gallon of milk . . . ought to cost three times as much."
The 110th Maryland State Fair closed last night with a 10-day attendance of about 600,000 people. That was down from last year's record 619,000 due to high temperatures late last week, but still qualifies as the third-best attendance ever.
"It's been a good, solid year," said Max Mosner, the fair vice president and general manager."We're pleased."