Hands-on cow-milking demonstrations excite and educate fairgoers

A young fairgoer gets a hands-on demonstration on how to milk a cow outside the Farm Bureau Building. Cow milking takes place daily at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Jordan Huffer / BSU Journalism at the Fair
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For some kids, milking a cow is only as real as the images on their virtual milking app.

Ten-year-old Michael Newkirk—who really does have such an app—had always wanted to milk a cow for real and was finally able to at the cow-milking demonstration Tuesday at the Indiana State Fair.

He walked confidently up to the massive cow and squeezed a few squirts of milk into the silver metal bucket with a smile on his face.

“It was on my to-do list,” he said.

A family of dairy farmers from Winamac oversees this regular, hands-on exhibit. Rich Knebel Sr., who is in charge of the cow birthing center where the milking demonstrations take place, has been a farmer his entire life and currently works with Oaks Dairy Farm. The cow birthing center holds eight pregnant heifers that one by one give birth and begin to raise their newborns right on the fairgrounds. Knebel travels around the country from Texas to New York with his family, showing the exhibit six or seven times a year.

He believes far too many people don't understand how their food gets from the farm to their plate. They pick up myths they hear on television and believe them without getting the whole scoop, he said.

“There's a lot more to it than your average consumer thinks there is,” he said.

Terry Clifford, who is in charge of the hog competition at the fair, agreed. “A lot of people today think all their food is from a grocery store,” he said.

Cole Knebel, 13-year-old grandson of Rich, said the kids who attend the milking demonstrations usually need a little push from their parents to walk up to the cow and try to milk it. Afterwards, the kids' wide smiles and refusal to leave the cows' sides say it all.

“I could do that everyday,” Newkirk said.

“I could get used to that,” added his 12-year-old brother, Billy Newkirk.

Bobbi Bates, special events and entertainment coordinator at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, said this exhibit has been a part of the fair since 1997.

“You can see how interested people are,” Bates said. “We have a lot of visitors who aren't familiar with agriculture and life on the farm.”

Bates said people would sit for hours to watch the birthing process. The latest calf was born at 8:45 a.m. Thursday morning and is on view in the nursery.

Knebel Sr. expects that by Wednesday or Thursday all those pregnant will have given birth, after which they will get new expecting mothers trucked from Willemsen Dairy in Anderson. Fairgoers in the right place at the right time may just get to witness a calf being born.

Alex Kincaid is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a Ball State University immersive-learning project placing 25 student journalists at the heart of the Midway to tell the weird and wonderful stories of the 2014 Indiana State Fair.