Carole’s Corner: How cattle become contenders at the fair

  • Letters and numbers are combined to create a unique tattoo to identify cattle. Courtesy of Carole Soule

  • Four-month-old Henry, a Scottish Highlander bull calf, gets his tattoo. Courtesy of Carole Soule

For the Monitor
Published: 9/3/2018 11:06:40 AM

‘Your tattoos are the best we’ve seen all day,” said the inspecting veterinarian.

We had just unloaded our first group of cattle at the fairgrounds on the eve of opening day of the 2017 Hopkinton State Fair.

I was so pleased; I’d had paid a tattoo artist thousands of dollars to ink dragons, phoenixes, flames, etc. into the skin of each cow, along with gorgeous floral sleeves on their forelegs.

Just kidding!

These tattoos are numbers and letters imprinted in each bovine’s ear. They must match the required paperwork that accompanies every animal to the fair. Ear tags are acceptable, but the vets prefer the tattoos.

Preparing for the fair starts in the spring when animals are selected to show. Only certain animals are eligible. For instance, there are no competitions for steers over 18 months old or for bulls older than yearlings. There are no restrictions on cows; any age cow can be shown.

Once the best animals are selected for showing, the next deciding factor is temperament. Show-animals have to be tied in a barn for four days while fairgoers pet and ogle them.

Children might run behind a steer, and baby strollers have been known to side-swipe calves. Livestock chosen for the fair must be calm and controllable; unflappable in any situation. An animal that is quiet at home might panic when exposed to swirling skirts, running children or funny hats.

Safety is king, and wrong decisions have been made. Sometimes unruly cattle are sent home; this is a fair, not a rodeo!

Each critter chosen for the fair must have a rabies shot and a health certificate at least 30 days before showing. We get our cattle checked and certified in June at the Merrimack Farm Bureau Vet Clinic. The number on the certificate must match the animal’s tattoo. Each tattoo is unique and, in our case, the first letters signifying the herd name are “CAS.” (My initials.) Then comes a letter that corresponds to the animal’s birth year. For instance F = 2017, G = 2018. Then comes a number that signifies the birth order; 1 = first calf born on that farm that year, 2 = second calf born, and so on. So, Henry, the bull has the tattoo: CASG10, which means he was the 10th calf born on our farm in 2018.

Calves are tattooed at birth, but we also give each calf an ear tag with its name and tattoo number. As the calf grows, the tattoo can become hard to read, so each year we re-tattoo as necessary.

Then comes the Hopkinton Fair on Labor Day weekend. In the week before the fair, the animals are bathed and clipped to prepare them for four days of easy-living and super-service. During the fair the cattle enjoy on-demand feeding and watering and lots of brushing, while I endure 6 a.m. stall mucking, sawdust hauling and regular feeding.

I only wish there were a section where competitors could be pampered.

The Hopkinton Fair is all about the animals so stop by and admire them.

I’ll be there, too, but don’t look at me. I’m just a disheveled, hollow-eyed and sleep-deprived servant of my groomed and spotlessly-clean cattle.


(Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, in Loudon, where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs and other local products. She can be reached at

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