By Jim Spencer Minneapolis Star Tribune
MINNEAPOLIS — The State Fair Market Beef Grand Champion looked like a 1,305-pound stuffed toy. His thick black coat — preserved by a summer spent lounging in an air conditioned room — fit like a plush velvet robe. His leg hair — teased and doused with adhesive — shone with freshly sprayed black paint.
No question, Chance the steer was fluffed and buff.
But was he a steroid-sculpted illusion?
Just as some athletes secretly use banned performance-enhancing drugs, owners of show animals can succumb to chemical attempts to get a leg up. It falls to veterinarians like Tom Lang to help determine whether champions like Chance are what they seem.
As the champ lumbered out the door of the fairground’s Warner Coliseum, Lang matched the massive steer stride for stride. In his right hand, the 68-year-old doctor clasped a 30-inch wooden dowel to which he had duct-taped a plastic cup to gather a urine sample.
Temptation to cheat
Discouraging outlawed animal enhancement by testing for steroids and eight other banned substances is an important job at the State Fair. Champion status multiplies the value of animals.
“Top bulls are more valuable than top athletes,” said Wisconsin cattle rancher Mark Goodrich.
Champion animals headed for the slaughterhouse sell for high prices at auctions. For those bound for breeding, a fair prize helps promote sales of embryos or semen worth tens of thousands of dollars a year. On average, cows produce 60 embryos annually that bring, on average, $250 to $600 apiece. The best cows command $1,000 per embryo. A single sample of prize bull semen divided into doses can bring $8,000.
Amidst this battle for big bucks stands Steve Pooch, who ran the fair’s animal shows for 15 years and still oversees its animal testing. As far as Pooch — pronounced Poke — is concerned, nothing could spoil a Great Minnesota Get-Together like letting the Barry Bonds of bulls or the Sammy Sosa of sheep sneak into the State Fair’s hall of fame.
“If you can keep the show clean, you keep getting a strong show,” he said. “We haven’t had a lot of issues, but we test every year.”
Testing gets tricky
Collecting a urine sample from a prize steer, pig or sheep usually involves a lot more than cup holding. Lang and his veterinary partners — son Scott and Mike Bjorklund — can’t leave a newly crowned champion until it has relieved itself. This can mean waiting up to three hours. Sometimes the process requires some hands-on encouragement, said Lang, who has spent the past 16 State Fairs doing this strange, but critical work.
“We take pigs to the wash rack and run water over the ears and snout,” the vet said. “With sheep, you cover the nostrils and mouth. They get panicky and then they urinate.”
Clipping hair to test from the shoulders and tails of the animals is simply a matter of running electric shears.
Vets also conduct ultrasound tests on udders and gather milk from champion dairy cows, checking for banned substances, as well as foam or water injections that make udders look fat and symmetrical.
Animal doping got so bad in Ohio in the 1990s that the state passed a law to make it a crime. To thin the herd of cheaters, the North American Livestock Show and Rodeo Managers Association started a national database of people caught breaking doping rules. “People on the list are banned from any show in the country affiliated with the association,” Pooch said.
While he has largely kept cheating in check at the State Fair, Pooch knows pressure to skirt rules keeps building. When he started in the fair business 37 years ago, a steer like Chance fetched “maybe 1,500 bucks” in Minnesota. Chance just sold for $14,600.
The real temptation to dope animals comes at what are called “open” and “jackpot shows.” There, said Chance’s owner, 17-year-old Kailey Davis, the grand champion can earn $100,000. “In the open shows, it’s every person for themselves,” the Glenville teenager said. “They cheer when you lose.”
Legal and illegal enhancements
Across the decades Pooch, veterinarians and lab techs have had to screen the State Fair’s prize-winning pork, beef and lamb for a growing list of banned substances. Among drugs they look for today are clenbuterol, a growth drug, and Lasix, a weight-loss drug. The fair also weighs cows and steers on their way in and out of competitions and disqualifies any animal that gains or loses more than 5 percent of its weight over the course of the fair.
Weighing guards against weight-loss drugs. It also protects against grotesque, but otherwise unprovable enhancements such as shoving a hose down an animal’s throat and pumping it full of water to gain judge-pleasing plumpness.
Meanwhile, some legal enhancements appear almost as harsh.
“A lot of these guys raise cattle in air conditioning all summer,” Pooch said of the exhibitors. “The animal’s hair gets all heavy and thick. So it looks much nicer. The problem is we don’t allow the animals in air conditioning. So they’re panting quite a bit because they can’t handle this heat and humidity because they haven’t been in it all summer. Several years ago, we had a cow out here at the wash rack just collapse dead of a heart attack.”
This year, the fair added another test, this one to detect the interbreeding of beef cattle with dairy steers. Breeding a little beef into a dairy steer can produce “a better looking animal for eating,” Pooch said.
“They could put some beef blood in the dairy steer just to try to win the show,” he explained, “We’ve had some suspicions in the past. We’re going to take the question out of it.”