Fair Days


Fair Builds Community

When the gates open on Sept. 9 at the Clay County Fair (CCF), young and old will excitedly pour onto the 222-acre fairgrounds to pet baby calves, enjoy world-class entertainment, talk to hundreds of vendors and eat yummy fair food. Blue-ribbon competitions showcase everything from cakes, photography and animals.

The CCF is tradition for many families in Northwest Iowa, and a reason for the creation of the 2023 theme, “Clay. Clay County Fair. Everyone’s BFF (Best Fair Forever).”

“Fairs are more relevant than ever before. We are lacking a sense of community in this day and age, when people only connect with each other through social media,” CCF CEO Jerome Hertel said. “There is no better place than CCF to connect with others, be entertained and learn something new. What better place to do this than the fair where you can also support the local community at the same time.”

In 2023, the CCF will run Sept. 9-17, showcasing new programs and familiar traditions. Besides the concerts at the grandstands, there will be over 20 new entertainment options performing on the free stages and throughout the grounds, including “The Circus Science Spectacular,” “Lizzy the Dream Girl,” Magician Jared Sherlock,” “Comedian Ali Sultan,” “Brunos Tiger Show,” and “Phil Baker,” to name a few.

Some of the new improvements to the fairgrounds include air conditioning in an exhibit building, new paved walkways and restroom renovations. Hertel is excited to experience the fair’s traditions and programs, while meeting the people who make the “World’s Greatest Country Fair” welcoming and successful. He believes every fair has its own culture, and the CCF is centered around family, agriculture, and youth development.

“Our desire is to continue to grow the fair by offering more opportunities for people to actively participate in the fair through fun and friendly competition, interactive educational exhibits, and displaying goods and services,” Hertel shared. “Getting more people to be actively involved and participate in the fair is as important as overall attendance.”

Another benefit of the Clay County Fair is how it provides a unique opportunity for youth to showcase their project work and receive recognition for their efforts. Whether building a project, preparing for a competition or raising an animal, each activity teaches youth how to set goals, make decisions, be responsible and build self-confidence. At the same time, the fair becomes a large classroom for the area, where youth can participate in science experiments, the environment and learn about food sustainability. These are just some of the life skills that youth learn when visiting the fair.

Hertel knows this firsthand, as he grew up across the street from the Turner County (S.D.) Fairgrounds. “This is where I developed a passion for fairs early on,” he shared. “My greatest memories growing up included setting up carnival rides, working in the church stand, and driving in the demolition derby.”

Hertel has 24 years of upper-level management experience in the fair industry, most recently as CEO of the Alaska State Fair since 2014. He has experience with county, state, and non-profit fairs, including stints as the operations director of the Sioux Empire Fair and executive director of the South Dakota State Fair from 2008-2014.

Beef Buddies

Fairs become an opportunity for youth to showcase hard work, commitment, and perseverance. Dickinson County Beef Buddies was started in 2013, under the direction of Cari Wallace and her family. Her desire was to provide youth throughout the county an opportunity to “show” a calf, whether they lived on a farm or not.

“Our main goal with starting the program was to promote our county fair and increase livestock numbers in the future,” Cari shared. “There has been a lot of really fantastic relationships that have come from the Beef Buddies program; the amount of family participation and the time spent at the fair makes for a pretty special community.” She said local veterinarian Dr. Tom Carr was a big reason for why and how the program started 10 years ago.

In 2021, Aaron Titterington of Jones Dairy took over Beef Buddies, and in 2023, 26 Beef Buddies between the ages of 5-12 years showed their hard work at the Dickinson County Fair in mid-July.

“I love putting a calf in kids’ arms and giving them the opportunity to walk around the ring. They get to experience that rush for the first time and talk to a ‘judge,’” she said. “By getting kids around animals and involved with the fair at a young age, we hope they continue as they get older, gaining appreciation and understanding for animals.”

In early June, Beef Buddies met at Jones Dairy south of Milford to pick out their calf. The dairy provides jersey-angus calves for the children who don’t have availability to baby calves. They can borrow or buy the calf. They then can take them to their own farm or have them stay at the dairy, allowing families in all demographics the opportunity to experience the enjoyment of raising a baby calf.

Some of the calves are still bottle fed, while others have been weaned. Through Beef Buddies and its sponsors, the child receives a halter and feed. For those who don’t have a farm to bring the calf, they visit Jones Dairy each day to feed their calf and walk them.

Aaron says working with animals is an addiction, and one of the missions is to showcase dairies in a positive light and get kids hands on with calves. “Beef Buddies is one way that teaches that in our community,” she said. “A testament of how good of experience it is for kids is the emotions that take place on the last day of fair. Their heart goes into that calf and its hard to say goodbye.”

Another way Jones Dairy brings animals into the arms of the public is by providing calves for Grandpa’s Barn at the Clay County Fair.

“They find that kids of all ages love petting the calves and seeing them interact with each other. It’s another way for us to give back so people can experience and understand animals. We are a huge fan of growing food naturally and showing people how cows produce milk,” Aaron shared.

Every day at Jones Dairy, 1,300 cows are milked three times through their 64-stall DeLaval rotary parlor. The milk they produce is picked up by a semi tanker each day and delivered to Agropur in LeSueur, MN, where it is made into cheese. For more information or if you’d like to tour Jones Dairy, visit jonesfamilydairy.com.

Show Cattle

For Lehner Stock Farm (LSF) near LeMars, IA, their family begins preparation for the CCF and other cattle shows at least a year in advance. Every day, Tom and DeAnn Lehner strive to raise quality show cattle of Chianina and Angus influence; their daughters Dana and Tara also have their own herds for producing show cattle.

Raising cattle to show starts with the breeding process, there are numerous different semen options you can breed your cattle too. Ideally, LSF wants each breeding experience to turn into a calf that could be sold for sale. Then around three months of age, the calves are sorted into those that LSF thinks has the most potential and are brought into the barn at the farm where they are halter broke and trained for show.

Every September, the family hosts a private treaty pasture sale at the Circle C Farm (Mike And Dana’s farm) near Storm Lake. Viewing starts over Labor Day and goes through the weekend of the Clay County Fair, allowing prospective buyers to see the cattle at the fair and a handful of the top calves are shown at the Open Prospect Show. Fall is when many farms will host their sales, as buyers are beginning to look for their animals for the next show season.

Calves are weaned from their mothers prior to the sale and placed in a shaded pasture for shoppers to more closely look at the animals. When buying a calf, a buyer should look very closely at the calves’ bone structure and makeup. You don’t want them to have any limps or "hitches" in their gait. There is also a style aspect that is important; you want the calves to have some eye appeal, which will make them more attractive to a judge later at fairs or open shows.

If you purchase a calf during the fall, they will range between five and seven months old and weigh around 500 pounds. Purchasing in the fall allows exhibitors time to work with their animals before the upcoming show season, which can take place all year long.

LSF will sell their cattle throughout the Iowa Great Lakes area, as well as different states, some as far south as Texas or as far west as Montana and Idaho.

Preparing a Calf to Show

For the exhibitors who participate in the CCF and other cattle shows in the region, they spend considerable time preparing their animals for the arena. It definitely takes more than a day to prepare. Showing a calf takes months of preparation to get the animal comfortable with all of the events that take place.

When a calf is small, they are brought into the barn to get halter broken. This means the calf gets used to wearing a halter and walking with the halter on their face. Then being led place to place with the halter. It can take weeks for the animal to get comfortable with the halter, along with the human touch. There are also other items that the calf needs to get used, especially in regard to hair care – baths, blowers, combs, show sticks, hair products and location changes.

The morning of a show consists of a bath, a blow dry, and a morning meal. Then closer to show time, the more events that will take place. “One of the products used goes on the leg and body hair, which when used, makes the bone of the calves look larger. This is called fitting, which takes a lot of practice,” Tara Rosengren explained. “The next time you are at a fair and can watch the fitting process and the show, make sure to do so. A lot of time and work goes into presenting each of the animals you see.”

Qualities the Judge Looks For

A judge considers different qualities during a show, depending on whether they are looking at breeding or market animals. However, both are judged on their bone structure and how they will be able to produce, as well as whether the animal will be used for meat or breeding production. When showing a market animal, the judge looks at their end point and how much meat and product will be achieved once they are sent to market. This means you want them to be fat and you want their body to be able to carry the weight once they are full grown.

Breeding animals are viewed in how they will produce and support babies. They need a maternal look and want their bodies to be able to carry the baby. A female needs to have the structure to be able to walk in the pasture and the udder to support a calf with milk production after giving birth.

Lessons Learned at Fair

For many 4Hers or exhibitors, whether they live on a farm or not, life lessons are learned quickly while showing animals and learning new skills. Tara has seen firsthand how taking care of cattle teaches a lot of responsibility, especially when these animals rely on you for their wellbeing. The animals depend on being fed in the morning and making sure they stay cool on hot summer days. They need the fly’s kept away and require another feeding at night. There are baths and hair care.

Leadership is another quality learned when caring for animals. If the child isn’t a leader, the calf won’t listen or take the directions being taught. It also takes someone with self confidence to take care of a calf and show it in the ring. If you are scared or timid, the animal picks up on those nerves and can feed off of that in a negative manner.

Once fair season is complete, most 4-Hers sell their market animals or send them to be butchered around 1.5 years. Breeding animals are kept and put into herds to produce for the following year.

The hardest part about all of the work and time that goes into raising quality animals for sale is the goodbye. You make a connection with each of the animals, maybe even name them, all you can hope for is that they go to a good home and you continue to see them being shown.

So, come this fall, if you are looking for a new experience or need a calf to exhibit at 2024’s Clay County Fair, visit the LSF sale. Visit them Labor Day weekend at the Circle C Farm located at 1158 590th Street in Storm Lake or visit them in the barns at the Clay County Fair. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram!

Before heading to “Meet Me at the (Clay County) Fairgrounds,” make sure to visit claycountyfair.com for details and view the 2023 schedule. Then make sure to pet a baby calf in Grandpa's Barn or watch one of the 4-H animal shows. Fair food is a must and don't forget to visit Smoky Mountain Central Railroad.