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Miracle of Birth Center facsinates fairgoers

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. - The sow squealed as she gave birth to her eighth baby pig, with kids squealing at the bloody, messy sight. Young and old alike reached out to touch the soft feathers of an hours-old chick, while others watched eggs hatch u...

An hours-old chick

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. - The sow squealed as she gave birth to her eighth baby pig, with kids squealing at the bloody, messy sight.

Young and old alike reached out to touch the soft feathers of an hours-old chick, while others watched eggs hatch under a nearby heat lamp.

A Holstein cow gave birth to a calf as dozens of people crowded around her stall and still more tilted back their heads to catch a view of the event on overhead television screens.

Welcome to the Miracle of Birth Center, the Minnesota State Fair's most popular attraction last year, when a million people watched dozens of animals give birth.

As the 2007 fair began Thursday, the center was well on its way of defending its most-popular crown. Overall, attendance was relatively sparse on a foggy, rainy day, but people crowded into the two-year-old birth center.


A crowd of young and old surrounded Michaela Bengston, who held a tiny chick.

"It is a great experience," the New London-Spicer sophomore said, as little arms reached around anything in their way to touch the soft chick. "We get to show the state of Minnesota our industry."

At that moment to the horde surrounding her, Bengston was the No. 1 agriculture ambassador to the mostly urban fair crowd. The fair always has given Twin Cities' residents a chance to see livestock - often their only chance - but the birth center gives those city folks a far more personal view of livestock.

The FFA-sponsored exhibit on the southern edge of the fairgrounds features cows, hogs, lambs and other animals giving birth. And birds such as chickens and ducks hatch in the barn-shaped building.

Organizers work to spread out the births so something is happening all the time. And if a fairgoer cannot get a clear first-hand view of a birth, a video crew provides a live feed to television monitors hanging from the ceiling.

On Thursday, a veterinarian helped a sow deliver a litter of pigs, and on the eighth he had to reach in to pull out a breached one. Dozens of people crowded around the sow's stall, with a like number sitting or standing in nearby bleachers.

While that was going on, others jammed aisles surrounding the newly-hatched chickens and ducks.

Bengston, from west-central Minnesota, said even in her first hour as an FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) volunteer, she received questions from people ranging from those who knew nothing about chickens to some who wanted to know the specific breed of the cute, yellow baby bird.


Those who know little about animals are the target audience, said Val Aarsvold of the FFA Foundation.

"People are removed from the farm enough that they don't see live births," the Altura woman said.

Aarsvold recalled one person who, when watching a birth, exclaimed excitedly: "Boy, it's a dog." It was a lamb.

The million visitors to the $1.5 million birth center last year learned about animals, the goal of the state's 9,000 FFA members.

North-central Minnesota's Mike Shogren said that exposing urban people to agriculture is valuable.

"FFA being education, this is an opportunity for us to have countless conversations," the Tenstrike resident said. "The idea is for them to go out of here with more knowledge than they had when they came."

Greg Wise of Stillwater doesn't live on a farm, but he worked on one near Monticello at one time, and was on duty near the dairy cows.

FFA members have to apply to work for free at the birth center. Wise was thrilled to be picked because "I just wanted to be closer to animals."


Working with him was Grant Matthys, from southwestern Minnesota's Cottonwood, who said he is like the exhibit's visitors - he is learning. Veterinarians and veterinarian students are on hand and eager to answer the young pig farmer's questions.

Walking past the FFA students were people from across the state. Some munched traditional fair food a couple of feet away from a sow or cow giving birth. Others looked a bit queasy, turning away at certain times.

But one dad's comments to his kids summed up his - and other visitors' - feeling: "Pretty cool, huh?"

One of the common questions Wise and Matthys fielded on the fair's first day was why the mother cow and calf were separated right after birth.

The pair said that for one thing, dairy cattle such as they have in the exhibit need to be handled by humans early in their lives since there will be a strong cow-human connection for years. They also want to save the mother's milk for human use and want to keep the calf from being hurt.

Those are the types of questions FFA members needed to be able to answer.

Bengston tried to keep things simple for her main customers, the younger fair-goers.

As one young girl gingerly touched a fragile chick - Bengston frequently changes chicks so they would not be away from the heat lamp long - the FFA member told her about the yellow covering: "They will turn into big feathers when it grows up."


Simple explanations like that satisfied most visitors.

About 65 FFA members and more than 25 adults, all volunteers, work at the exhibit through the fair's 12-day run.

Shogren, a regional FFA president and an Itasca Community College sophomore, said the organization's members are not all going to be farmers. About a third are from farms, a third from rural areas but do not farm and a third from urban areas.

FFA provides personal growth, leadership and other education, Shogren said.

"That's what FFA is all about," he added.

If you go

- What: Minnesota State Fair

- When: Daily through Sept. 3


- Where: Falcon Heights (adjoining St. Paul). It often is tough to find a parking spot at the fairgrounds. An alternative is to take a shuttle bus. Find bus stops at the "park and ride" link on the fair's main Web site.

- More information: www.mnstatefair.org or (651) 288-4400

New at the fair

- Robotic cow milking machine that uses a computer chip implanted in the cow.

- Contest on Aug. 31 where cooks are asked to use 10 or fewer ingredients to create deep-fried food.

-Coca-Cola cheesecake dipped in chocolate, fried and served on a stick.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com .


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