Ky. State Fair: Backstage at the ‘cow wash'

LOUISVILLE — It's not like they aren't used to it. They are show cows, after all. (A loose definition of show cows: cows that bathe.)

And here at the Kentucky State Fair, in the West Wing, is the cow wash. Granted, sometimes it's the goat wash or the pig wash but when the cows are in town, they pretty much decide where you walk, where their keepers sleep and how many times they're going to make it to the laundromoo, so let's just call it the cow wash and be done with it.

A crowd forms to watch, the unlikely sideshow of livestock in a locker-room setting doing the pre-game primp. It's like having a backstage pass.

Joe Sparrow of Owenton is taking Joella, a Brown Swiss, through the usual routine. She likes a bath “about as much as the next girl,” Sparrow says, though if you look close, he admits, Joella “doesn't act like she's all that used to it.”

But she should be. Sparrow washes her twice a day because nobody wants a show cow unused to the nuances of showing. It could be that she's upset because Sparrow is using bona fide horse shampoo on her even though cow shampoo is sold on the open market.

What kind of shampoo to use on a cow is a matter of much debate. You have your horse shampoo people, your laundry detergent people (it's said to be wonderfully soft on your hands) and your Dawn dishwashing liquid devotees.

Clayton Largen of Shelbyville is the latter.

“It's the grease-fighting activity,” he says. “I used to use laundry detergent but it didn't take the manure off them like Dawn does.”

And it's not just the manure that's got to come off (though there is plenty of that).

“You got to loosen the WD-40 first,” says Nick Jessie of Metcalfe County. He's a friend of Josh Jones whose Brown Swiss cattle won first, second and third places on Friday with their topline ridge hair all gussied with the “multi-purpose problem solver” and then with hair spray.

“You got to get that out,” says Jessie, “because their hair falls out if you don't.”

And no self-respecting Brown Swiss goes back to Job Farms with its hair falling out. That explains why Trixie here is stretching like a gymnast during her bath.

“She's relaxed,” says Jessie, by way of understatement.

Jessie swears he has no secrets for the relaxation of his cows during bathing but Linda Jamison of Shelby County says her secret is to start at the top and work her way down, much as one might work a car, though she does make sure she's wiped their noses — not standard car-wash procedure.

Zachary Durbin — who is 11 and doing the work for his older brother who is showing but has stitches in his hand and is unable to do the cow bathing — says his secret is to “start with the head and go sideways backwards.”

Zachary uses a different method than most, scrubbing his brother's cows with a hard brush, up and down, methodically, carefully, covering every inch in vertical striped suds.

Are they ticklish?

“They can't even smile,” he says, continuing to scrub. But no, they aren't ticklish.

They aren't complaining cows either, says Roy Parker, a state fair employee in charge of maintaining the cow wash area. That's more than you can say when it's the pigs' turn.

As soon as the water hits the pig, it starts squealing, he says. “You get four or five in there and you got to leave, it's so annoying and loud.”

The worst the cows do, he says, is step on you on the way out. Or decide they're too clean. Or that your shoes are.

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