Dairy cattle are not natural show-offs.
Getting one to follow you around a show ring, stop on command, stand still and keep its head up takes some convincing and a lot of practice sessions, as more than a dozen county youths learned this summer in preparation for the Howard County Fair.
"It's hard work," said Shannon Jones, 10, of Sykesville. "Different days they have different personalities."
Dairy cattle were once plentiful in Howard County and at the annual fair, which runs this weekend through Saturday. As the number of dairy farms has shrunk from hundreds to a handful, the efforts of a few dedicated farmers have kept the fair's dairy show tradition alive.
This year, David and Ann Patrick's family, which runs the Maple Dell dairy operation in Lisbon, is providing dairy cows for nine young family members to show and offering eight more youths an opportunity to lease animals as part of the 4-H program. The 17 youngsters will test their showmanship at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Show Ring and will compete in other contests during the week.
One member of the family, Rhonda Winkler, is leader of the 4-H dairy club. She and her brother Mike Patrick have the show animals at their farms and, along with other siblings, are getting the young people started with the training and showing basics.
Animal lease programs, which are found statewide under the direction of the 4-H program, usually charge a nominal fee. The Patricks charge no fee.
The farm benefits from the training the animals receive, said Winkler's sister, Carroll Murray. More importantly, she said, "For my dad, it is a way of giving back to the community and the 4-H program that has given us so much."
Amid the growing suburbs, the county 4-H program as a whole has thrived. About 650 youths participate in 4-H activities, said Sheryl L. Burdette, who oversees the county 4-H program as an educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. She said the Howard County program is one of the five largest in the state.
Many young people raise animals that fit more readily in a backyard or on a couple acres. This year, the fair expects 117 4-H members to show pigs, 52 to show lambs, 28 to show goats and 38 to show beef steers. Dozens more will have rabbits and poultry entries.
More than 50 4-H members will take part in horse shows, Burdette said, while dozens of others will compete in a dog agility contest, a small pet and wildlife show, and a worm race at the fair.
Other 4-H projects do not involve animals. They include traditional home activities such as sewing, canning and baking as well as fine art, crafts, computer activities, entomology, natural resources projects and rocketry.
"The whole goal is to teach [youths] life skills they can use now and as adults," Burdette said. Those skills include responsibility, decision making, learning new things, communication and creative thinking, she said.
Even with so many options in 4-H, showing cows still appeals to young people.
"It is exciting," said Bailey Patrick, 9, of Woodbine, "because you can meet other people. Each year it's more fun because you get a new cow and see what they are like and how they are different from the cow you had before."
Her cousin, Morgan Murray, 6, added: "I like how friendly they can be. They don't get up when you lay on them."
Shannon and her brother Jacob, 7, live on a dairy farm in Sykesville. Despite growing up around cattle, they didn't know much about showing them.
They found the 4-H club and Winkler and her family's leasing program. Their friend Allison Gordon, 12, joined the program with them.
"I wanted to see what [showing] was like," Jacob said. "I think it's kind of fun."
At least three days each week - and usually more often - the youths have to take the cattle out of the barn and walk them around the yard or down the driveway and back to get them used to wearing a halter. When the stroll is done, the cows need to be cooled off with a hose and brushed.
The 4-H members also have to assist with feeding and cleaning the barn and, close to show time, work on clipping and grooming the animals.
Leading the large animals gets easier over time, Allison said. "You talk to them, pat them," she said.
Jacob said that you also need to get them to keep their heads up and their feet positioned correctly.
"It's been a great, great program," said Mitzi Jones, who is Shannon and Jacob's mother. "They are really learning hard work, and once the fair arrives they are going to realize how much teamwork [plays a role]. It's going to be wonderful."
Shannon's plan for the fair is to coax her cow with kindness. She said: "I think I'm going to pet my cow and be as nice as I can."
The Howard County Fair is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at 2210 Fairground Road, off Route 144, in West Friendship. Information and schedule: www.howardcountyfair.org.