I arrived for my 1 p.m. shift at the Minnesota State Fair Miracle of Birth Center at 12:30 p.m. this year on a beautiful, sunny, late summer day. I have been volunteering there for a long time. I do this because it is a great cause, and even though I have seen what seems like a million calvings in my time, birth is still a miracle to me.
Volunteers at the MOBC are there to take care of animals and to educate the public about animal agriculture. In the pre-shift briefing this year, I learned that the cow that was induced for labor today calved early, right around midnight; all of the sows had farrowed; a goat had kidded yesterday and an ewe a couple of hours ago. I also was told the cow in the calving pen was examined in the morning, and based of that exam, she was predicted to calve today. We will see, I thought, because even with tools like pharmaceutical induction of labor, birth comes when birth comes, and it is a miracle anyone is actually around to see it. I put on a clean volunteer shirt and headed out into the throng of fairgoers.
If you have never been to the Minnesota State Fair MOBC, you just need to know one fact: It is the most popular exhibit at the fair. The Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest communal events in the United States so there are almost always a lot of people in the building. I did the math one year and calculated that one person enters the building, on average, every eight seconds, for the entire duration of the fair. This is actually great, because it means there is always someone to talk to about all these critters that we rely on for our livelihoods and our existence. As I squeezed through the masses toward the bovine end of the barn, I was sure I could do a lot of educating today.
The black cow in the calving pen was small for a Holstein, but the black coloration on parts of her udder made me think there were some other genes in her too. Like all the cows the MOBC gets from this farm, she was a nice-looking cow. She did not appear to be in labor, but it really is hard to know when a cow is actually in labor. She did, however, appear to be bothered by flies. She was kicking straw on her belly and was swatting her ears to stave off some hungry stable flies. So, I immediately turned around, went back to the volunteer room and asked for some fly spray to give the poor beast some relief. A nice young FFA student showed up shortly and proceeded to attempt to spray the cow. Unfortunately, the cow was having none of it and ran around the pen to keep from getting sprayed. The student did her best, but I think most of the spray went into the air.
When I climbed out of the pen, I was immediately asked, “What is the spray for?” Being a cow person, I was surprised by this question, because everyone would, of course, know that it was fly spray. But, then I remembered these people are not cow people. I answered that same question several times in the next few minutes. Sometimes education needs to be basic.
The most common question I answered was, “When is she going to have her baby?” To which I answered, “I really don’t know.” Sometimes I said, “Today, or so I am told.” Or, “Well, she was examined this morning and found to be partially dilated, so we think today or tonight.”
Sometimes I would give a longer explanation about how cows here were induced into labor, but that the cow that was induced for today gave birth last night. This cow seemed to be starting on her own, and that normally we do not induce cows on dairy farms routinely; no, induction in dairy cows does not work like oxytocin does in humans. In fact, oxytocin does not work for induction at all, and that some species like sheep and goats are even harder to induce, and so forth.
I was ready for two questions because they come up every year.
“Dairy farmers take the calves away from their mothers at birth, right?”
“Why do those pigs have to be kept in those awful crates?”
I was also ready when asked, “Is it stressful for the animals to be here around all these people?”
Sometimes someone will directly challenge me about these topics. I have even been told that the whole idea of a birth center was too stressful for the animals and was a form of animal abuse. The best approach to these sorts of difficult questions or challenges is to listen, ask questions, engage but not argue in an attempt to change minds.
Even though we might want to educate, one cannot educate without connecting first. In fact, the most important thing the MOBC does is just that: connecting producers with consumers. That connection might come during a birth of a calf, but it could just as easily come when spraying a cow with fly spray or petting a baby pig. However it comes, the connection is what is important. Plus, establishing that connection becomes more important every year since fewer and fewer consumers have any connection with animal agriculture.
Here is a big thank you to CHS, FFA, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, all of the great volunteers for all the work they do to operate this great exhibit every year and to the farmers who graciously lend their animals every year. And, I was right. I really did not know when the black cow would calve. After my shift, I walked around the fair a bit, but I checked on her before exiting to the parking lot. Still no calf. Miracles happen when miracles happen.
  Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennettnvac@gmail.com with comments or questions.