Cheaters never win at the Iowa State Fair, despite some participants making grand efforts
The Iowa State Fair features more than Ferris wheels and people eating every kind of fried food. It’s one of the largest livestock shows in the world, and it is the highest level of competition of its kind in the state.
After the judging is completed and the ribbons are awarded, 16 youth exhibitors sell their champion or reserve grand champion livestock via auction during the Sale of Champions — which is conducted in the Cattle Barn during the Fair’s final Saturday. The sale is managed by the Iowa Foundation for Agricultural Advancement (IFAA), a non-profit organization with a mission of recognizing youth members who compete in agriculture-related projects and pursue agriculture-related careers.
The sale offers competitors in youth livestock a crack at some hefty checks containing a multitude of zeros. Last year, the 16 champs tallied sales of $373,700, which is an all-time record for the fair. The Grand Champion FFA Market Hog exhibited by Lexi Marek brought the single biggest bid in the history of the Fair, a whopping $53,000. Participants receive 80 percent of the animal’s sale price, according to the fair’s website. The rest is kept by the IFAA to fund scholarships for other agriculture enthusiasts.
Marek — who capped off her youth livestock career with the win — and her hog named Philip shared a special moment on the auction floor.
“It’s wild,” she remembers. “There’s so much noise and yelling and bidding. It’s definitely a production, and it’s really fun to be a part of.”
One might assume the buyers at the auction are investors looking to infuse their own gene pool of pigs, cattle or livestock with superior DNA. But the bids are an unselfish act, according to Marek. The buyers benefit themselves very little with their purchases. They aren’t allowed to breed the animals or to use the DNA in any way. Marek says the bidders are simply encouraging agriculture’s next generation.
“It is in no way an investment,” she says. “It’s simply giving to the winner so they can further their education in agriculture.”
For many of the animals at the fair, including the ones entered in the Sale of Champions, the competition is a terminal one. After the auction, the grand and reserve champions (market steer; market heifer; market hog; market lamb; broiler special; market meat goat) are processed at the Iowa State University Meat Lab. If sold, the buyer must relinquish the animal for carcass data. Various organs of the animals (excluding market broilers) are collected at slaughter for tissue testing. They are then displayed for educational purposes.
It may sound harsh to some, but people involved in agriculture learn early on that every animal has a purpose. It’s the same in the show ring as it is for any other market cow, pig or lamb.
The scholarships Marek earned by way of her agricultural exploits helped her finish college without student loans. That is a nice perk, but she says some things are better than money.
“Honestly, I was so over the moon,” she says. “I’d wanted to win the State Fair since I was 6 years old. So I didn’t even care about the money.”
The winning recipe, for Philip, was eating 3 pounds in the morning and 3 pounds at night. His conversation rate was 2 pounds, meaning he’d gain 2 pounds per day.
She says her pig weighed 268 pounds when it weighed in at the fair, which is a fraction of what the big pigs weigh. The famous Big Boar competition judges boars based on how large they are. The big boars usually weigh about 1,200 pounds.
Marek says she didn’t worry about drug testing and other precautions that guard against cheating. She knew her family was competing the right way.
“I’m sure they do DNA testing,” she says in regard to the fair’s precautions to ensure the animal is the one its owner claims it is. “But I don’t know much about it.”
She prefers to focus on caring for her animals and winning.
“Everyone’s doing the right thing,” she says. “It’s more of a precaution than a worry. You’d have to be really stupid to mix up a pig,” she says.
Other people, reports and onlookers have witnessed a different experience.
THE RULES, THE PICKLES FIASCO, AND EAR TAGS
Cheaters have been busted at the Iowa State Fair. Fair spokesperson Mindy Williamson confirms that six grand champions or reserve grand champions were disqualified in the past 30 years of the fair’s livestock competition.
Highlighting the few bad apples who have competed in 4-H, FFA or other youth livestock events at the fair could have the effect of coloring the entire bunch in a bad light, but doing so might also act as a deterrent and encourage more honest and earnest efforts.
The fair’s 4-H livestock rules state that no drugs or medications of any kind may be administered at the fair except by the order of its official veterinarian. All animals are subject to chemical testing and analysis. Positive tests result in immediate disqualification of the animal, forfeiture of ribbons, trophies, premiums and sale prices. The exhibitor and the exhibitor’s family may also be barred from participation in future Iowa State Fairs.
The fair works with the Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for testing, according to Williamson. All champions are tested and are subject to random testing during the competition. Only the non-cheaters are allowed to cash their sale checks. If testing comes back off kilter — showing some kind of illegal or unfair leg up — then the winner’s Sale of Champion check becomes void. The violators lose everything they’ve gained, so there is little incentive to win the wrong way.
The rules also state that exhibitors are expected to be honest and maintain good sportsmanship, which includes fair play, honor and dignity. The livestock is to be drug free, and surgical procedures, injections or drugs that would affect or alter the animal’s performance or appearance are prohibited — except in rare instances, mostly relating to the health of the animal. Striking animals to cause swelling, or the use of electrical contrivances to harm an animal are also not acceptable. And ear tags must be worn to ensure the animal’s identity.
But some say not all of these rules are always followed.
“It’s an unwritten rule, everyone switches the ear tags,” says one former entrant who wishes to remain anonymous. “Most people cheat. Everyone knows it, and it’s not even hidden amongst competitors.”
According to court documents, one animal — probably the most famous to be stripped of a title — was a steer named Pickles.
Pickles wasn’t accused of performance enhancers, but instead the 2002 grand champion had its ribbon taken away as a result of its nose prints not matching the prints it had allegedly submitted earlier in its show career. This process helps identify an animal the way fingerprints do for humans.
“Everyone was doing it, so if you’re not doing it, you’re not trying,” says the former exhibitor. “You need to keep up with the Joneses.”
In human athletics, steroids are a prevalent mechanism for gaining an advantage, but the former fair entrant says steroids don’t help as much with some classes of animals as they do in others.
“Growth enhancers and steroids are more prevalent with the steers and cattle,” he says. “It makes them stronger.”
But pure-bred sheep, for example, don’t always benefit from added bulk. The contest isn’t as much about speed or physical ability. A ewe’s 100-yard dash time isn’t relevant to judges. Instead, the contest is more akin to a beauty pageant or a meat market, and muscles that are too big or boxy are neither tasty nor voluptuous.
He says if a title is taken from an entrant due to steroids, the owner’s response is predictable: “Someone must have put something in the water.”
He also says the cattle are sometimes pumped with either cooking oil or air. These injections into a steer’s posterior will to add to its massive appearance, which judges in that class prefer.
Supporting the claim is a 2003 story in The Des Moines Register telling of a reserve grand champion steer at the Warren County Fair that was disqualified. Officials reportedly found air injected under its skin to make it appear more muscular. The disqualification was described as “rare” by 4-H officials. The article said a syringe was likely used.
LIPSTICK ON A PIG, OR SILICONE IMPLANTS
You may have heard of putting lipstick on a pig, but what about plastic surgery? At various livestock competitions around the nation, veterinarians have been said to remove cartilage to shorten a pig’s snout, or to lengthen it by adding silicone. Entrants at other competitions reportedly shoved a garden hose down an animal’s throat, forcing water into its stomach to increase its weight. Reports of surgically replacing animals’ adult teeth with baby ones, or hammering baby incisor teeth and pushing them down into a calf’s mouth so the animal will appear younger have also been reported. These “cheats” are significant, as teeth are a key indicator of age and closely monitored by judges. Thus, the adage: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Age is a key component of livestock competition, as fully mature animals are bigger and stronger and more filled out, thus more apt to win against lesser developed animals. But farm animals don’t possess government-issued birth certificates, and the means for judging an animal’s age is limited to characteristics like the animal’s teeth, and to a lesser extent, the size of the head. As such, the animal’s age can be verified by little more than the honor system.
Both sheep and goats are born with smaller “milk teeth,” which eventually fall out to make way for larger, permanent teeth. The teeth of sheep begin to spread as they get older, and some of them get larger. Filing the teeth down can make animals appear younger. This sort of cosmetic technique is hard to accomplish, because it’s painful for the animal and difficult to force it to endure. Veterinarians with animal tranquilizers have been known to make it happen. According to an anonymous former entrant, if done properly, it can make an animal look significantly younger.
When it comes to evaluating an animal’s age, the competitors will sometimes even ask one another’s advice about what they can get away with.
· Prospective cheat No. 1: “Do you think I can get away with a February birth date?”
· Prospective cheat No. 2: “I don’t know. Her teeth are spreading a little bit. It was born in October. I think February is pushing it. I’d go January.”
The former fair exhibitor once saw the same ewe lamb entered and shown as both a February birth and for a March one. In actuality, the ewe was born in December.
“It used to be, ‘If you’re not lying 60 days, don’t even talk to me,’ ” he says, which frustrated him and others attempting to play fair.
He remembers one instance when even a cheater became angry at the cheating.
“Especially when someone actually had a legit one,” he says, meaning a natural “freak of nature.” The frustration came from knowing that if not for the fraudulent entrants, the legit “freak of nature” would easily win.
WINNING THE RIGHT WAY
“I started when I was 5 years old,” says Marek. Her first pig was named Calico. Since then she’s been to hundreds if not thousands of fairs and other competitions. She is the sixth generation to live on her family’s farm. She raises the pigs they show.
The family farm also has cattle, but it’s famous for its swine. She’s also showed sheep, her sister has shown goats, and the family even acquired a duck.
Three classes of competition are featured at the Iowa State Fair. 4-H is for youth not yet in high school. FFA is for high school and four years after graduation. And the open division is available to all ages.
Entrants aren’t allowed to compete in more than one of the youth organizations with the same animal. Marek says she has aged out of youth competition. She could compete in the open division, but instead she’s calling it a career.
Her entire family is involved in the showing ring, and winning is a family affair.
“That’s the biggest thing I’d want people to know,” says Marek. “I couldn’t have done it without my family, and I know a lot of other winners feel the same way.”
The family is known for its hogs. When Marek’s hog mustered the highest bid in fair history, it broke the record that was set a year earlier by her sister’s hog, which was the grand reserve champion and had brought the previous highest bid at the fair’s Sale of Champions.
“For us, the championship started years ago, and it’s been years of building. We breed them, raise them, show them, wash them and enter them into the fair,” says Marek.
It takes a lot of time to build a program to win championships, but that is what the Mareks have done.
You can’t win if you don’t play. That’s true with winning jackpots, and it’s true with winning at the fair. Contestants often compete in the county fairs and other competitions running up to the main event in August. Marek has done that in the past, but she employed a different strategy with Philip for 2016. She knew it was a special pig, so she didn’t enter it in any other competitions.
“I didn’t want anyone to know,” she said.
“Sometimes you get close to the animal, and sometimes you don’t.” she says, noting that she and Phillip had a special bond. “He was by far my favorite,” she says. “He had a great personality.”
Once at the fair, the animals are weighed and they show by their weight.
The fee for entering livestock competitions averages from $5 to $20, but there are a few horse competitions that are more.
Throughout the day, the animals are judged and placed in the next level.
“It’s all about the ultimate market hog,” she says of favorable judging. “Muscles, design, the ability to walk around the ring, and the wow factor — like the size of their feet.”
Philip had it all. As a result, he finished his career with an undefeated record.
Marek says that while she won’t be showing anymore, she isn’t done with her work in agriculture. She has moved to Des Moines and is starting a job at FarmHer, a company that promotes women in the agriculture industry. ♦