At the Georgia National Fair on Monday, many children were contentedly passing up valuable midway time to have a real-life experience.
They were among a crowd of hundreds of people of all ages at the fair’s newest attraction, the Baby Barn, where the babies have been coming faster than expected. Organizers aimed for one cow to give birth each day of the fair, but as of Monday, the fifth day of the fair, 10 births had taken place in front of audiences in the Baby Barn. That means the output has already nearly reached the total goal for the 11-day fair.
On Monday one Holstein cow gave birth at about noon, and that calf had just made a wobbly few first steps — to cheers and applause — when the announcement came that another cow was in labor. The second birth happened about an hour later, with a little assistance from a veterinarian.
During both births, children and the rest of the audience seemed transfixed by the process as narrators described what was happening.
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David Reese, a firefighter who grew up on a dairy farm, drove his family from Gainesville specifically to see the Baby Barn. He wanted his two children to have the experience he had as a child. They arrived Sunday and watched for the phone alerts that a calf was about to be born, but they couldn’t get to the Baby Barn in time.
On Monday, however, they happened to be nearby when the alert went out and they saw the noon birth.
“I think it’s a really good thing that they have something like this for the public to see what we go through on a farm,” Reese said.
As each birth happened, children were invited to give a name for the calf, and four were selected for a final vote from the crowd via cellphone. The child who got the winning name was invited to have a picture taken with the calf to be posted on social media. Monday’s calves were both girls, Lilly and Buttercup.
The second birth was a bit of a surprise. That cow was still in one of the side pens when she went into labor, not the center pen where cows are moved to when a birth is expected. Because she was already in labor, she was left in the side pen which made it a little more difficult for the crowd to see.
The birth was going slowly, and after the calf’s feet had protruded out for a few minutes with little further progress, veterinarian Lee Jones quietly crawled through the fence, wrapped chains around the calf’s feet, and gave it a gentle pull. With help from Dr. Brad Hines, also a UGA vet, the calf plopped out, and soon it was standing. Jones said later the birth probably would have gone OK without any help, but he stepped in as a precaution.
Jones teaches veterinarian medicine at the University of Georgia, and thought the Baby Barn was a good idea.
“I think this is an amazing opportunity for the public to see things they normally wouldn’t,” Jones said. “We are just two generations away from the majority of people being on a farm. Most of the people today have no connection to a farm whatsoever.”
Jack Spruill, marketing director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, served as the primary narrator of the births, with the vets also commenting at times. Spruill said the response from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive, although some people haven’t understood why the calves are separated from the mother soon after birth.
As he explains in the narration, Spruill said that’s a necessary step that is done for all of the births whether the cow is at the fair or on the farm. In fact, he said, it was a requirement of the dairy farmer who donated the cows.
Spruill explained that just before and after birth the cow produces an enriched milk called colostrum. The calf needs to get a gallon of it within the first 12 hours after birth. The only way to be sure of that is to bottle feed the calf, so all of the calves born at the fair are moved to a “nursery” in the Baby Barn. They are fed the milk harvested from the mother cows. But still, he said, people just don’t like seeing the calf separated from the mother.
“They don’t understand it,” Spruill said.
Despite the faster-than-expected pace of the births, anyone interested in visiting the Baby Barn doesn’t have worry about expectant mother supply running low. About 200 cows from a nearby dairy, the owner of which asked to remain anonymous, were artificially inseminated and timed to give birth during the fair.
“Don’t worry, we are not going to be running out of cows, even though we are having more than one a day,” said Erin Burnett, director of creative projects for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “We have enough mamas for everyone to see.”