January 18, 2022

Vacation at the fair

Virgil family participates in annual tradition

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Sonya Helms of Virgil leads her Ayshire dairy cow into a lighted grooming pen Thursday at the New York State Fair in Geddes.

GEDDES — Hundreds of humming fans barely masked the random “moo” echoing Thursday morning throughout the milking parlor at the New York State Fair.

Metal railings running for yards across the building were sectioned into aisles of pens full of hay and resting cattle trying to stay cool and grab something to eat.

Among the hundreds of cattle was a 1-year-old Ayrshire cattle, named Tallulaha, getting her hair clipped by her owner, 17-year-old Sonya Helms of Virgil. Washing, cleaning and clipping Tallulaha has been about a daily routine this week for Helms in preparation for the cattle showmanship youth competition at the fair.

It’s a routine Helms has come accustomed to since she was 2, always being around the showmanship competitions with her family. But the event is more than just a competition.

“It’s fun,” said Neal Helms, Sonya’s father. “It’s our vacation. It’s the only time the family spends together.”

That’s why Sonya’s stepmother, Marlene Helms, loves attending the fair. “I get to see my family,” she said.

Tallulaha is like Neal’s dog, Sonya said. She’s a part of the family. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Neal giving Tallulaha a few kisses every day, she said.

Whether you have a dog or farm, you still need someone to watch the animals, Marlene said, making it hard to get away and do things with the family. But the fair competition is one they do not miss –– and they’re able to attend thanks to Sonya’s grandmother watching the farm.

Unlike the Cortland County Junior Fair, where Sonya competed against only Cortland County kids, at the state fair she is competing against kids from all over the state.

“It’s very difficult, you’re working with a 1,500-pound animal,” said Sonya Helms, who was the 2017 Cortland County dairy princess.

Sonya walks Tallulaha around a small hay-covered arena, trying to present herself and Tallulaha as best she can.

“You expect to be in control,” she said. “But if they’re angry, they’re in control.”

Sonya Helms of Virgil spends a few moments grooming her Ayshire dairy cow Thursday at the New York State Fair in Geddes.

What gets them angry is warm weather. On Wednesday the temperature reached close to 90 degrees.

Sonya said she had to take Tallulaha outside every two to three hours. Tallulaha had a fan on her at all time during the week, as well.

“They (the cattle) get pampered here,” Sonya Helms said.

On Wednesday, the duo took fourth place out of 11 in their class, for the showmanship competition that judges Helms’ ability to handle and walk with Tallulaha.

“She (Tallulaha) was a little upset before the competition, but she was OK once in the ring,” Sonya Helms said. “You don’t know what will happen until you get in the ring.”

Before the competition Thursday, Sonya clipped Tallulaha’s hair, giving her a mohawk look across her back, which Sonya said gives an optical illusion the cattle has a straight back. Good for showmanship. After the trim, and Helms dressing herself into her all-white uniform, which all competitors wear, the duo took fourth place out of six in the showmanship competition for the appearance of the cow and how well it walked with its owner.

“Not the best placing, but we’re looking forward to the open show on Saturday,” Sonya Helms said.

The Wednesday and Thursday competitions were divided by age group, but on Saturday she competes against everyone else with an Ayrshire. Other cattle breeds included Brown Swiss, Holstein, Jersey, Milking Short Horn and more.

“It is interesting to see the genetics in the different breads,” Sonya Helms said.

Tallulaha is more than double the size of Sonya already, and will keep growing, she said.

The cattle, if in good health, can compete until they are 10 years old, Sonya Helms said. This year was Tallulaha’s second time showing at the fair and there could be more. Helms is already considering entering more showmanship competitions.

Helms said her favorite part of coming to the fair and competing is the memories she makes.

It’s her vacation with Tallulaha standing in the path of a humming fan, Sonya clipping Tallulaha’s hair, her sister sleeping on a cot and her parents off to the side watching with a smile.