This weekend I took a curious excursion to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. During my time there I was animal beauty pageantry. For Canadian farmers, it is unquestionably the most important event in the agricultural calendar. For city dwelling onlookers like myself, it was comparable to The World Cup finals and a Gary Larson cartoon rolled into one bewildering day out.
I sit in the stands clutching a hot dog and gazing into a large arena with white fence running around it. All around me is the quiet hum of conversation as spectators jostle impatiently, awaiting the arrival of the competitors. The arena floor is covered with wood shavings, giving the place the smell of a hamster’s cage and wreaking havoc with my sinueses. Finally, to rapturous applause, the contestants enter the arena, their hooves glinting daintily. They are 8 jersey cows, each being led by a beaming farmer. But these are cows like you have never seen them before. Their immaculately polished coats gleam under the lights; their tails are pruned to perfection. Infinitely more time and attention has been lavished on these animals’ appearance than even my 18 year old self spent on his hair before prom. I open my mouth and deliver the only response I am capable of mustering.
“What the shit?”
As with all sports, cow pageantry requires a huge amount of passion, dedication and energy. This is all the more impressivehen you consider the nature of a dairy farmer’s job. They are awake long before the crack of dawn to tend to their herds every day of the year. Time off for them is comparable to what climate change is for Trump. A myth. Yet every year, many of them undertake the herculean effort of preparing, bringing and housing up to ten animals to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair for a week! So why the hell do they do it? Animals which are particularly admired can sell for up to $100,000. Yet for many, the chance to compete for a ribbon and win prestige for their farm is incentive enough.
My cow sense is tingling
Back in the arena, the cows are led around in a large circle by their owners. Suited judges walk up and down, surveying the animals. They are responsible for picking the winning cow in this category. They seem to give each animal a cursory glance, before moving on to the next. Confused, I ask a spectator what they are looking for.
“Cow sense”, is the reply I receive.
Apparently, those who spend enough time in the dairy industry begin to develop an innate sense, almost like a disappointing, agriculturally themed superpower, of what makes a winning cow. I meanwhile, have been encouraged to place a bet on which bovine I think will emerge triumphant. I look up and down the line. Hmmm. Four hooves, some udders, and a swishy tail. This is the extent of my expertise. In the end I settle for a cow with what I imagine to be a steely glint of determination in its eye. I confidently point at the animal. No sooner have I done so, the animal lifts its tail and proceeds to shit gratuitously all over the floor. The cow’s human runs forward with a miniature bucket but alas it is too late.
The farmer must carefully wipe his cow’s arse in front of the audience. The animal continues its pooey protest and manages to soil its neatly groomed tail with turd. The procession is halted and the wiper is joined by a friend who diligently re- grooms the cow’s tail. The bovine looks thoroughly unapologetic. The winners are announced just after I stop sniggering. I have managed to pick the champion of the ‘best udder’ category. It would seem that I have found my cow niche.
As with all sports, there is always the small minority who ruin it for the rest by cheating. Cow pageantry is no different, but the ingenuity behind some of this swindling is extremely impressive. Just as with human athletes, cows have been injected with steroids in the past. Doping was once rife. Farmers have been known to inject the udders of their cows with water to make them appear rounder. It is also not uncommon for them to paint black spots onto their cows to ensure that they look more stereotypically cow-ish. All of this chicanery has led for the need of official guidelines to be published on how you may and may not present your cow. Like all top athletes, a failure to submit a blood and urine sample will result in them being stripped of their title.
Cows aren’t the only thing judged at the Royal. If animal pageantry doesn’t float your boat then you can immerse yourself in the riveting search to crown the winner of best “In field crops”. Below is the corn category, a particularly enthralling category. Note how yellow and corn shaped the winning cob is, compared to the yellow, corn shaped cob of third place.
Although it was a fascinating day out, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the ethics behind the show. The animals often seem reluctant to participate and at points have to be hauled around the arena by their farmers. Furthermore, they are encouraged to stand in unnatural poses for extended periods of time, with their heads forced up by a girdle and their stomachs sucked in. In order to accentuate their udders the cows have not been milked that morning, something which causes them huge discomfort. I mean, imagine being part of a model shoot that involves you being paraded around the studio with the burning need to shit and piss simultaneously. My experience with livestock is limited, but even I could see they were frequently stressed and in discomfort. I began to wonder why the ethics of hosting such a competition hadn’t been broached. That question, however, was soon answered following a peek inside the Agricultural Hall of Fame. A sea of elderly white men stared back at me. Nuff said.