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Ray Duckler: Learning until the cows come home

  • Jacob Downs, 10, of Loudon, hangs a ribbon he won for his dairy cow, Ahha, at the 4-H dairy show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. This was Downs' second time participating in a 4-H show. His older brother, Jay, also showed dairy cows in the event. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Jacob Downs, 10, of Loudon, hangs a ribbon he won for his dairy cow, Ahha, at the 4-H dairy show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. This was Downs' second time participating in a 4-H show. His older brother, Jay, also showed dairy cows in the event.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Jay Downs, 14, of Loudon, guides his dairy cow, Elderberry, during the 4-H dairy show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Jay Downs, 14, of Loudon, guides his dairy cow, Elderberry, during the 4-H dairy show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Jay and Jacob Downs, both of Loudon, are brothers who participate in local 4-H dairy shows. Jay has been showing dairy cows for six years, while this is Jacob's second year. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Jay and Jacob Downs, both of Loudon, are brothers who participate in local 4-H dairy shows. Jay has been showing dairy cows for six years, while this is Jacob's second year.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Levi Fisher, 13, of Loudon, talks to one of his steers, Tom, before the start of the 4-H working steer show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Levi Fisher, 13, of Loudon, talks to one of his steers, Tom, before the start of the 4-H working steer show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • From top left, clockwise: Anna Philbrick of Candia, Rhett Courser of Warner, Lydia Haswell, 16, of Chester, and Connor Tasker, 16, of Strafford, participate in the 4-H working steer show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. Philbrick, who has competed in 4-H shows for nine years, took home first place. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    From top left, clockwise: Anna Philbrick of Candia, Rhett Courser of Warner, Lydia Haswell, 16, of Chester, and Connor Tasker, 16, of Strafford, participate in the 4-H working steer show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. Philbrick, who has competed in 4-H shows for nine years, took home first place.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Jacob Downs, 10, of Loudon, hangs a ribbon he won for his dairy cow, Ahha, at the 4-H dairy show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. This was Downs' second time participating in a 4-H show. His older brother, Jay, also showed dairy cows in the event. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Jay Downs, 14, of Loudon, guides his dairy cow, Elderberry, during the 4-H dairy show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Jay and Jacob Downs, both of Loudon, are brothers who participate in local 4-H dairy shows. Jay has been showing dairy cows for six years, while this is Jacob's second year. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Levi Fisher, 13, of Loudon, talks to one of his steers, Tom, before the start of the 4-H working steer show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • From top left, clockwise: Anna Philbrick of Candia, Rhett Courser of Warner, Lydia Haswell, 16, of Chester, and Connor Tasker, 16, of Strafford, participate in the 4-H working steer show at the Belknap County Fair in Belmont on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. Philbrick, who has competed in 4-H shows for nine years, took home first place. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

I attended a pageant yesterday in Belmont.

A different sort of pageant, one I knew nothing about.

The contestants were judged on looks and poise, just like Miss America. Swimsuits and answers concerning world peace and Iraq, however, were nowhere to be found.

Instead, participants had to be manure-free.

They had to be light on their feet – all four of them.

They were allowed to chew their cud while competing, and their emotions and needs were expressed using one simple word.

“Moo.”

This is a column about learning, at the 70th Belknap County Fair, where I attended the 4-H Dairy and Beef Show. Within the confines of a red, one-railed wooden fence, cows and their owners competed in front of judge Stephen Uhlman, a recent University of New Hampshire graduate.

Uhlman, a tall string bean with a quick smile and huge brown eyes, grew up on his grandparents’ New Hampton farm. He knows more about cows than the farmer with the pitchfork in that iconic painting.

The turnout was low, just five cows, each competing alone in a separate category. But while a competitive edge was missing, I learned how animals and humans can work together in harmony, based on trust.

To the people I met, though, these were more than cows.

And more than pets.

“They’re like best friends,” said 14-year-old Jay Downs of Loudon, whose family has enough cows to populate all of Concord Commons. “I’ve had them since they were little. That creates a bond.”

In this case, the bond was with Edelberry and Feta, a pair of Holsteins.

Why Feta, you may ask?

“So I can name her calf Chedda, so you’d have Feta and Chedda,” said Jay, who added that cheeses such as Provolone and Monterey were other options.

His brother is Jacob, 10. One of his cows was named Gummy, another Holstein, the other Ah-Ha (as in yes), a milking shorthorn.

The brothers guided me through this uncharted territory. So did Uhlman; 14-year-old Rebekah Hardwick of Francestown; Pam Glover, the fair’s vice president; and Kathy Conway-Frangione, the supervisor of the cows.

I milked them for information, and they were udderly helpful.

I learned that a heifer is a female, usually younger than 2, that hasn’t had a calf yet, while a cow, generally 2 and older, is a mom whose udder has developed.

I learned that the brothers’ four heifers had been shampooed yesterday morning, that they had been clipped with the care of a first-rate salon professional, that their hooves had been buffed, that manure stains had been wiped away after the clipping.

I watched Jacob blow dry Ah-Ha’s coat smooth, watched him walk his two heifers under the watchful eye of Uhlman, whispering into their ears to calm them so they would walk with a sense of style and grace.

I learned that Hardwick’s cow, a beef cow as opposed to dairy, was used for breeding and would not become a steak dinner one day, prompting Hardwick to smile after she had revealed this information and say, “I love my cow.”

And, during this time of steroid use in baseball, I learned that some owners spray paint over manure stains that can’t be wiped away, an illegal tactic (Cowgate?) that happens now and then in the name of winning a blue ribbon.

On a more personal level, I learned that the Downs family has two farms, in Gilmanton and Loudon, and milks more than 100 cows on a regular basis. As Uhlman said, “People don’t realize how much work goes into this.”

Uhlman’s history is rich with haying and milking, a childhood of working and playing on his grandparents’ farm, where beef and milk and eggs were, and continue to be, sold to friends.

“My grandfather died, so now it’s just my grandmother,” Uhlman said. “She’ll be 80, and she can do more work than I can.”

The new experience continued when urine shot from Ah-Ha like Niagara Falls, and manure plopped from another heifer, hitting the ground with a thud.

I jumped back and thought, “Yuck.”

Jay and Jacob, both closer to the action, barely flinched.

This was their world, and the passion and dedication was obvious. I knew nothing, yet I was welcomed in by people eager and happy to show me what had been part of their lives for so long.

I asked Jay and Jacob what was the most important element to be successful in this sort of beauty pageant.

“Get them to trust you,” Jay said.

“Be nice to them,” Jacob added.

A moo-ving experience, indeed.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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