September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
The Popps milk 80 registered and grade Holstein and Jersey cows on their Benton County farm near Rice, Minn. With five children - Allison (18), Corey (17), Nicole (14), Nate (11) and Aaron (8) - active in 4-H, the county fair gets to be a busy time for the Popps, but the day of the 4-H dairy show (this year on Aug. 1) takes the cake.
For the three oldest Popp kids, the day started in the wee hours of the morning, at 2 a.m., washing their string of 18 cows and heifers. At 4 a.m., they set to work primping and preening the animals, making them look their finest for the show.
"We have fun," said Allison. "It's a good experience, but it's a lot of work, that's for sure."
At home on the farm, the house was also bustling with activity before the sun rose. Renee was up at 4:15 a.m., preparing a cooler of food and beverages for the day, cleaning house and doing laundry. Although she grew up in a city, she had relatives that farmed. Showing cattle, however, was a new experience for her when she and Larry married. Not for Larry, though.
"This is the 100th year of the Benton County Fair, and [my family] has been showing at the Benton County Fair for half that time," he said.
Larry and Renee were both in the barn by 5 a.m. to do morning chores. They were joined by Nate, who helped Renee milk the cows in their double-7 herringbone parlor, and Renee's niece, Danielle Chmielewski. The parlor and freestalls were retrofitted into the dairy barn in 2000, replacing 102 tiestalls.
"I love milking in the parlor ... and the labor in a freestall barn is just so much easier," Larry said.
In the last year, the Popps expanded a bedded pack area attached to the barn that houses lame cows, fresh cows and cows that are too big for the freestalls. They also recently built a new calf barn.
Larry mixed feed while Nate and Renee milked the cows. Nate and Renee were done by 6:45 a.m. and headed to the house to get ready for the fair, leaving Larry to wash the parlor and feed TMR.
When Renee, Nate, Aaron and Danielle arrived at the fair in Sauk Rapids, Minn., around 7:45 a.m., the cattle barn was a scene of organized chaos, with hair dryers blowing, clippers clipping and cans of spray being used to mold each piece of hair into place. Corey was hard at work perfecting the Popp cattle's toplines.
"I do this job," he said of the toplines. "I like it ... because I can show off my talent. It comes natural [to me] and I enjoy it very much. I want to be a professional fitter when I grow up."
Meanwhile, Allison, Nicole and Taylor Jurek, a distant cousin, kept a variety of hay and feed in front of their animals, including beet pulp.
"Feeding beet pulp makes them look fuller; it expands their belly," Nicole said.
At 10 a.m., the announcers called the junior showmanship class into the arena, kicking off the dairy show. This class included Nate and Kaylee Jurek, Taylor's sister, who leased two calves from the Popps and was showing for the first time. Nate ended up in the top spot, coming away with a grand champion ribbon. This started a trend, as Nicole took the top showmanship spot in the intermediate class.
The dairy show took most of the afternoon on Aug. 1. A short bout of heavy rain in the morning provided only brief relief from the heat and humidity that followed. While it was exhausting - for the 4-Hers and the animals - spirits were high throughout the show.
"I like seeing how happy the kids are showing. They love it, and they're even happy when they don't win," Renee said.
The top cows and heifers gathered for state fair lineup at 3:40 p.m. Just before bringing their animals out, Larry, Nate and Nicole milked a couple of their cows in the parlor on the fairgrounds, with a small crowd gathering to watch. In a county where dairy competition is stiff, the Popps claimed the top spots in a couple classes, winning a few trips to the state fair.
"We're pleased with how they did," Larry said. "Benton County has definitely got quality."
The day wasn't done, however. Corey caught a quick nap before he and Allison headed back into the show ring for the final round of senior showmanship around 4:30 p.m. After parading their animals around the ring and sharing their knowledge with the judge, Tom Foss, Corey was named grand champion. This honor gave him the opportunity to participate in the Supreme Showmanship competition that evening at 6 p.m., where he claimed second place overall after showing his cow, a pig, a sheep, a goat and a dairy steer.
Corey and Nicole stayed at the fair to tend to the animals while the rest of the family headed for home around 5:30 p.m. Renee and Allison cleaned up and were back at the fair by 7 p.m., in time for Allison to receive a 4-H scholarship. Larry, Nate, Danielle and Aaron managed chores, wrapping up around 9:30. The rest of the family was home for the night by 10:30, and after a hectic, fun day, they were ready for peace, quiet, and a little shut eye.