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Published August 21, 2014, 10:07 AM

Minnesota State Fair’s livestock barns stay real (and rural)

After a full day of work at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds last month, Mark Goodrich went home to his ranch outside Glenwood City to check on the cattle.

By: Jaime Delage, St. Paul Pioneer Press

GLENWOOD CITY, Wis. — After a full day of work at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds last month, Mark Goodrich went home to his ranch outside Glenwood City to check on the cattle.

These days, Goodrich, the fair’s deputy manager in charge of livestock and competition, is the only year-round fair employee who can say that.

His job by day is to make sure the State Fair has some of the best-run agricultural competitions in the region.

His job by night — and early morning — is to make sure he has some of the best Angus cattle in the region.

He climbed behind the wheel of his utility four-wheeler with his wife, Claudine, and grandson Josh sitting on the tailgate. A short drive through hayfields and wood patches brought them to the fenced pasture where the cows grazed.

Immediately they saw something they didn’t like.

One cow was trying to “ride up” on one of the other cows. And the cow below wasn’t trying hard to discourage it.

“That’s not good,” Claudine Goodrich said.

Why not?

“We were hoping they were all pregnant,” Mark Goodrich said.

It was just about the end of breeding season, and that cow, No. 102, had been bred already. The fact that she was suddenly so attractive to another cow meant she was not pregnant and in heat again.

They would have to decide whether to breed her again.

The Goodriches’ cattle are carefully selected and bred with top-flight semen they keep frozen back in the barn. Some of it comes from star bulls from other ranches, and some comes from their own star bulls. Some of it has been frozen since the 1970s, when Mark Goodrich was a teen experimenting with a relatively new technology.

Goodrich, the son of a University of Minnesota professor, studies his herd. His cattle wear color-coded ear tags so he can tell at a glance which ones were conceived from heirloom genes. Cow 204’s father was born more than 50 years ago, he said.

“In the urban world, there’s a big push toward heirloom genetics, or heritage genetics, so what we’ve done in the cattle business is do some experimentation with some of the old genetic lines compared to the new ones,” he said. “There are areas where I think some of the 50-year-old genetics may be better.”

Knowing the business

Goodrich knows his herd — and the cattle business — well. He and his wife have raised and shown cattle together since they were high school sweethearts.

By the time they graduated from Forest Lake High School in 1975, they owned 20 head in partnership — and that was before they became a husband-and-wife partnership.

At that time, livestock producers would spend much of the summer marketing their best animals on the “show circuit.” Today, Goodrich said, the economics are tighter and producers are much choosier about which shows they travel for.

The Minnesota State Fair has done a good job competing for those producers. And his associates say that is largely because Goodrich and his team know what it takes to keep livestock producers happy and returning to the beef, dairy and other shows at the fair.

Fairgoers might be surprised to learn the fair has a larger dairy show than the Wisconsin State Fair. It’s not that the Wisconsin fair is bad, Goodrich said, it’s just that dairy farmers have to pick which shows to attend.

In Wisconsin, they go to the World Dairy Expo in Madison. In Minnesota, they come to the State Fair.

“Minnesota is one of the few fairs in the country that still has outstanding livestock shows,” said Steve Pooch, Goodrich’s predecessor in the livestock and competition department.

Before retiring in 2010, Pooch supervised Goodrich for 25 years. He gives Goodrich credit for recent innovations, such as a smartphone app that helps producers learn more about the animals on display, that have kept the Fair’s competitions healthy.

“We still see barns that are at capacity or darned close in every species,” Pooch said. “We’re very blessed that way.”

Decision made

Back at the farm, Mark and Claudine had a quick huddle to decide whether to breed No. 102 again.

Mark was hesitant. He and Claudine run the ranch with the help of his mother, 77-year-old Joyce Goodrich, and their two young grandchildren. They consider many traits when deciding which cattle to breed, including how easy they are to work with.

“One of the traits we select for is we want them very calm, docile,” he said. “And the one that just came back in heat has a docility problem.”

In the end they decided No. 102 was a good enough cow to keep around, and that means she needs to earn her keep by bearing calves. So they would have to bring the whole herd of 60 cows into a second farmyard, where their son lives, so 102 could be bred again.

They climbed back into the 4-wheeler and started driving slowly down the lane that bisects their 320 acres. The cows watched curiously but didn’t move. Then Mark started hollering.

“Ka-BOSS! Ka-BOSS!”

The cows started following.

What’s “ka-boss”? Goodrich’s version of “come bossy!” He said a lot of ranchers use some version of that same call.

Five-year-old Josh called, too, picking up the language, and so did Claudine. But the cattle seemed to step livelier when Mark called.

“They really like Mark’s voice,” Claudine said. “Anytime, anywhere he calls them, they come. Me, it’s not so much.”

Barns full of cattle and kids

The cattle come because they know they’ll get some fresh grass in the farmyard. Likewise, Goodrich makes sure livestock producers are rewarded for choosing to exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair.

It’s some big things, like the livestock ambulance parked outside ready to take a prized bull to the Large Animal Hospital at the University of Minnesota.

It’s also some smaller things, like the cattle pens that have numerous tie-up points instead of the big iron rings they once had. It makes it easier to put a couple of calves in one side of the pen and mom on the other. Goodrich says he stole that idea from the tie-outs in somebody’s livestock trailer.

Exhibitors notice the little things.

“Mark is always very conscious of making sure the exhibitors and cattle are very comfortable,” said Chad Zehnder of Zehnder Cattle, a Charolais beef exhibitor from Stanchfield, Minn. “Mark is always asking what can be done differently and how we can make life for the exhibitors better.”

The result is that Minnesota’s livestock shows are full year after year.

“There’s been years they’ve had to turn numbers down when other state fairs are trying to fill up their barns,” Zehnder said. “And the barns are not only full of livestock, they’re full of people, as well. They sure seem to put a smile on a lot of kids’ faces.”

No complaints

The cattle got a little suspicious as they got near the barnyard, apparently recognizing it as the place where unpleasant procedures are performed, sort of like the vet’s office. Goodrich tells young Josh to stay on the four-wheeler while he and Claudine jumped off to prod the cattle into the grassy plot. There was some jogging, some shouting and some poking involved.

This is where Mark and Claudine are rewarded for their docile-cow judgments. Soon the cattle were in the small pasture and the gate was closed behind them. Mark would return in the morning to breed 102 again.

The sun was getting low as the Goodriches rolled back into the main yard. Their son and his wife were just arriving to join them for dinner. Their daughter and Mark’s mom were already there.

Mark and Claudine have built a full life for themselves, fuller than many people would want, but they don’t complain. They’re up early for chores before the commute to Mark’s job at the fair and Claudine’s job teaching English at Mahtomedi Middle School. Evening chores can keep them up late. During calving season they’re up and down all night.

But they don’t really think of the ranch as work. That’s the relaxing part of their day, even if it is a taxing way of relaxing. And Mark says it’s the love of their life on the farm that inspires him to make sure fairgoers get a good, honest glimpse of the farm life when they visit the Minnesota State Fair.

“The fair has been one of the last best places to share our rural agricultural lifestyle,” Mark said. “Everything we have and everything we do here, we’ve worked hard for, but there’s been a lot of people that have helped us, too. This is my way of helping agriculture back.”

Editor’s note: The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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