A state fair brings to mind the smells of fried dough and cotton candy, the heat and the crowds, the agricultural competitions, and the occasional Ferris wheel. This past August, the Minnesota state fair opened an attraction more tempting than a first-prize, homemade peach pie: the Minnesota State Fair Birthing Center.
From Aug. 22-Sept. 2, 2001, some 400,000 fairgoers flocked to the 50- by 80-foot, state-of-the-art barn, designed to reflect modern animal production practices. University of Minnesota professor emeritus Dr. John Anderson, who received the 2000 AVMA Animal Welfare Award for his work in developing housing systems for dairy cattle, helped design the facility.
Dr. Mary Olsen poses with the first calf born at the Minnesota State Fair Birthing Center
With some good planning and fertility management by farmers and veterinarians involved, crowds witnessed the births of 32 lambs, 11 calves, and 122 piglets over the 12 days.
The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, the Minnesota VMA, and the state Future Farmers of America are co-sponsoring the center. Drs. Florian Ledermann and Mary Olsen of the Minnesota VMA spearheaded the project, and also co-chair the center.
"[The center] evolved because the Minnesota VMA felt they needed to do something for large animal veterinary medicine, or food animal practice in terms of public relations," said Dr. Ledermann.
Similar centers at the Kansas, California, and Michigan state fairs have been just as popular. Drs. Ledermann and Olsen visited Michigan and Kansas for ideas.
"The message we took home from them is that they were very interesting exhibits to the general public," Dr. Ledermann said. "A lot of people came through there; the very young, the very old, and everything in between."
Drs. Ledermann and Olsen also saw the center as a valuable mentoring program for veterinary students and FFA members. Five veterinary students from the University of Minnesota spent a part of their fourth-year rotation at the center.
"There was very good interaction between the veterinarians and the veterinary students," Dr. Ledermann said. "We know that in Kansas, the students were given a lot of public speaking experience. They were also there with the veterinarians through the examinations and the deliveries; they were walked through the process. ...In Minnesota, they had an opportunity to examine a lot of animals they normally wouldn't see as obstetrical cases. And some births were rather difficult, so that was more of a learning experience for them."
Area farmers volunteered the eight sows, five cows, 12 ewes, a horse, and an assortment of ducks, rabbits, and chickens. The center's 65 large animal veterinarians, working on shifts of five at a time, provided free veterinary care to the animals.
"Of course, our goal [was] to get them back to the owners in good condition with live [babies]," Dr. Ledermann said.
Though the center was designed to move the crowds through without jamming up, during the births no one left their seat.
"It was just incredible how [the crowds] would line up at 9 a.m. to get in, and how we had to [get them to leave] at 9 p.m.," Dr. Ledermann said.
Crowds were walked through the birthing process, as veterinarians made predictions about delivery time and weight. Attending staff demonstrated care for the newborns, including warming and drying them, as well as procedures such as colostrum testing. All the while, the crowd was eager with questions.
The 50- by 80-foot Miracle of Birth Center was built onto the existing Children's Barnyard at the Minnesota State Fair.
"We covered a lot of general knowledge," Dr. Ledermann said. "People just asked tons and tons of questions, just constantly worked us over."
The most asked question was about the stress of the animals. Fairgoers wanted to know whether giving birth in front of onlookers was a strain on the animal.
"We selected animals from farms that were used to being around people," Dr. Ledermann said. "We designed the exhibit to the point where, while we could keep direct contact with the animals and the public, we had provisions that if something started to happen, if the animals got restless, we could easily rope it off or even remove it from the exhibit."
Those who couldn't get front-row bleacher seats to witness the births were able to watch and listen from the eight live video monitors and microphones surrounding Children's Barnyard, incorporated in the center. Dr. Ledermann said the crowd's reaction to the births was amusing, "People would cheer and clap as if it was a scoring touchdown," he said.
"But, we really felt that we accomplished the mission of public education about what food animal veterinarians do, and what is involved in food agriculture today, as well as food safety."