8/31/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — While calving may not seem unusual or entertaining to dairy farmers, it’s drawing throngs of people to the New York State Fair’s Dairy Cow Birthing Center.
“They’ve had big crowds and lots of interest in it,” said Beth Meyer, director of communications for the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council Inc. “People are nuts for it.”
As of last weekend, the New York Animal Ag Coalition Facebook page, which is chronicling the bovines’ birthing experiences, had reached 500 “likes,” even though the fair started two days earlier on Aug. 22.
Six nearby farms are providing the pregnant cows and every two days the featured farm changes to a different one. The animal ag coalition’s goal is to facilitate three births per day; however, it doesn’t always pan out that way. One day offered four births. One calf was born at night. And some of the cows are being induced.
But despite the “untimely” births of some of the calves, the exhibit has been a hit among fairgoers.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” said Jessica Ziehm, executive director of the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition. “It’s been incredible. Some people have been here for hours waiting for a calf to be born. The pen is filled to the brim with fairgoers who are asking lots and lots of questions.”
Ziehm estimated the exhibit has received about 4,000 daily visitors. Volunteer farmers, industry representatives and veterinarians on hand answer fairgoers’ dairy and cow-care questions via a microphone in an open forum.
“Our main goal has been to increase the conversations between the dairy farm community and the public and enhance the understanding of modern agriculture,” Ziehm said. “Our slogan is There’s no udder place for answers.’”
Since visitors have little else to do while waiting for a calf to be born, asking questions and reading the informative displays allows them to pass the time.
After the births, the calves remain with their mothers for about an hour before they are placed in a calf hutch. A pair of month-old calves are kept on display in small stalls so visitors can pet them.
“We hope we can return with this to the fair next year,” Ziehm said. “The crowds have been larger than we have anticipated. People thank us, hug us afterwards and say it’s the greatest experience they had on the fairgrounds.”
The minimum time people spend in the exhibit is 30 minutes, even without a calving taking place. Ziehm theorizes people watch the cows on the bedded pack more than in the cow barns because they are behaving in a more natural herd environment.
“When you walk through the cow barn, they’re tied up and you just see their backsides,” she said.
She believes the idea of a birthing pen could have potential for agritourism farms to include as an attraction; or that any farm could set up a “cow cam” to drive more traffic to their websites.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to talk to people because they’re so engaged,” she said. “They’ve nothing to do but listen to you. They have really good questions that help people understand modern agriculture.”
Cornell’s live webcam of the birthing center, which can be viewed at http://www.vet.cornell.edu/news/NYSFair, attracted more than 1,000 viewers in its first two days.
The sponsors of the birthing center include: Agri-Mark, Byrne Dairy, Cargill Animal Nutrition, CaroVail, CCK Outfitters, Central New York Feeds, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dairy Farmers of America, Dairylea Cooperative Inc., Elanco Animal Health, Elmhurst Dairy, Gold Star Feed & Grain, Holtz Nelson Dairy Consultants, Farm Credit East, Merck Animal Health, New York Ag in the Classroom, New York State Fair, New York Corn & Soybean Growers Association, Northeast Ag & Feed Alliance, Professional Dairy Producers Foundation, Rapp Dairy Nutrition LLC, The Voss Group, and Zoetis Animal Health.