Food & Swine

101: Visiting Livestock Barns

The Iowa State Fair is nearing and it is the most blissful time of the year in our house.  We have daily access to the best event Iowa has going.  All 11 days of it.  (Yes 11, not 10… do the math, it was tough for me to understand too.)  I love to go out and take the kids to see all of the sights. Some of our favorites include: Little Hands on the Farm (which I helped get started back in 2004 when I worked with D. and G. in the Administration Building, fun times), The Animal Learning Center, The Ye Old Mill, Sky Glider, Pioneer Hall, and most importantly the bevy of livestock buildings and abundance of animals there.


I’m compelled to share, as an annoyingly-cautious Mom, a couple of tips and hints about being in ‘the barns’.

(If you are farm-iliar, most of these tips, terms and info will be no surprise.  I do have lots of friends who are not familiar, so this is for them.) We are so lucky that our Iowa State Fair does an excellent job in keeping the fair-goers safe.  This is just a little icing on the cake.  You’re an Iowan (most likely), you are smart and we’re so happy you want to see us in the livestock buildings!

Here we go!


#1.  Exhibitors love to have visitors and people in the barns, checking out all of their hard work.  We love when you ask questions or let us know you like what you see.


#2.  Watch out for the fake spiders, mice or rats on the end of fishing line that have been strung up on the rafters.  These are pranks played by the kids that have worked all year to be sitting in their tack pen, visiting with their friends and taking care of their stock.  Don’t be offended, we just like to have fun!  (If you ‘see one coming’… chances are there is a little kid at the end of the fishing line 20 pens over… give him/her a thrill by shrieking as loud as possible.)

#3.  Stay and watch a show if you can!  We love to have an audience and you never know… you may want to show livestock someday too.

#4.  On a serious note:  Livestock (for the most part) are not ‘pet’ animals. They can have different tendencies and can (on accident) hurt you or your children, if you are not paying close attention.  There is an exception to every rule.  There are some pigs, cattle, horses, chickens, ducks etc. that are more tame than your 13 year old black lab named Pumpkin.  SOME.  I just want you to know the things that can happen, so when you visit the livestock barns you can have the safest experience possible and are encouraged to visit them often!

For Example: (Today we’ll cover swine (pigs), cattle and horses.)


During show days, exhibitors are moving pigs (without leashes mind you) with small crops/whips and panels to the wash racks and show ring.  Please watch out and move to the side of the aisle if there is a pig approaching.  This is for your own safety.  We can never be assured that all of the sudden our hog won’t go completely nutty and start woofing around and accidently run into you.  These hogs are in a new environment and for some, it is pretty exciting.  Most of the gilts and barrows* are harmless unless they really are having a spunky day, just be on the lookout when a pig is heading your way.  No matter how the exhibitor prepares (walking pigs daily, etc.) sometimes random bouts of happy-craziness ensue.  We’ll do our best to keep them out of your way, we promise!  NOW… I will tell you that the boars (intact males) can be a different story.  If my boar gets a whiff of something he likes to smell (ie: a female in heat nearby) he is going to do just about anything to discover it.  He doesn’t take kindly to things in his way.  If two boars are heading towards one another, there will usually be a scuffle, big or small.  They even scuffle in their pens…


That’s why we carry around ‘boar hurdles’ so they can be separated when fighting.

Boar Hurdles:


The handlers of these animals know what they are doing, they’ll keep you safe, just keep a manageable distance.  Like I said… please don’t be afraid in the barns, that isn’t what I want this post to be about.  I want you to come and visit me.  Please!
(Also, pigs do have very sharp teeth… pet their backs if you must!  A friendly gnaw isn’t fun anyway!)

*SWINE 101:
Gilt: A female who has not yet had a litter of piglets.
Sow: A proven female.
Boar: An intact male.
Barrow: A castrated male.

*Don’t get near the piled up bedding (the cattle are tied up and laying on) in the aisles of the cattle barn. Those animals are capable of kicking out and being dangerous. Sure, this is an exception but it can always happen.  If you have never seen this, consider yourself lucky.  Use caution when traveling through the cattle barn, exhibitors are always on the move to the wash racks, pavilion for show or tie-outs (where they sleep outdoors) at the end of the day.  Keep a safe distance.  If you insist on touching an animal (I don’t recommend) or a baby calf that is also on display, please ask the owners or managers of the stock.


photo courtesy of Marcy C. (thanks girl!)

Here’s a picture of a nice gentleman that showed us his cute little Hereford calf at the Iowa Beef Expo (hence the winter gear). We were lucky to have a tour and ‘petting session’ arranged by the organizer of the event.  Thanks Mindy!


Heifer: Female who has not given birth to a calf yet.
Cow: A proven mother.
Bull: An intact male (they usually have rings in their nose)
Steer: A castrated male

Same things apply here as they do in the cattle barn. Typically, ropes are strung up so you cannot pass through the aisles when there is show preparation being done.  On draft horse show nights, be aware of moving teams of horses, regardless of where you are at. Livestock Patrol (riders on horseback moving trailers in and out of the grounds) are always kind and will answer your questions too but I will caution, at the beginning of the Fair, sometimes the horses aren’t used to all of the noises and such.  Be mindful when you approach any horse/animal. Rule of thumb: Keep a manageable distance and ask before you pet any horse.  Some (very few) horses can bite or nibble.  The best way to see horses is in the Jacobsen Center where there are shows going on throughout the Fair.

HORSE 101:
Filly: Young female
Mare: Older female
Colt: Young male
Stud/Stallion: Intact Male
Gelding: Castrated Male

See you soon!  To see schedules and lists of events at the Iowa State Fair, visit their website here.


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  • Reply Jodi August 1, 2014 at 10:46 am

    We used to favor the fake $10 bill on a string in our dairy barn ;)

  • Reply rusty August 1, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Can’t wait for the guide on Stockmans!

  • Reply Beth Ann August 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Great post !!! I never knew about the fishing pole thing—-I guess I never fell for that one!!! Love going to the livestock barns and yes—some common sense is a good thing!!! :-)

  • Reply sandyrmiller August 6, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Enjoy your blogs so much! Looking forward to trying the cinnamon rolls soon. Do you ever make sticky pecan rolls? Sandy

    Sent from my iPad


  • Reply Katlyn August 6, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Also, don’t cross under those yellow ropes in the horse barn! Show prep for the drafts and ponies is very hectic and the animals are bred to be very spunky. It’s EXTREMELY important to ask before you touch, respect the rope boundaries, and mind that these animals are known to spook very easily. I’ve shown draft ponies and horses for years and it’s the scariest/most nerve racking thing to see a parent wheel up a stroller to a horse’s belly and say “pet the pony”. They are bred to look active and alert in the show ring, which takes away some tameness in the stall. Great post that hopefully many tourists read!

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