THE STAR of the show is late, but no one in the audience complains. Instead, anticipation and awe draw them closer to her straw-covered staging area, while her handlers consult in hushed voices. At the sidelines, dads lift toddlers onto their shoulders. Come on out, honey, someone in the crowd whispers. It's gonna be OK.

In the age of reality TV and perpetual Internet sideshows, who'd have thought a humble barnyard birth would attract a following? Yet these are the best seats in the house at the Maryland State Fair: bleacher benches flecked with dried mud in a corner of the Cow Palace, where nature directs a timeless script.


We're having a calf. And though the labor has lasted several hours, spectators have hunkered down in the state fair's birthing center to watch and wait.

In a central pen, a Holstein reclines uncomfortably, nose down in the straw. She's struggling. There's a possible tangle inside, and a decision must be made whether to hasten the birth. She's wild-eyed but trusting of the veterinarians and University of Maryland animal science students who examine her. She needs more time, explains Tom Hartsock, animal scientist and emcee.


There's time to pace, and ruminate, like an expectant father. Outside the Cow Palace blares the relentless cacophony of carny game barkers and screaming teens hurtling past on roller rides. A Clydesdale team clip-clops past, harness bells jangling. Somewhere, there's bluegrass fiddling. The bingo caller drawls as she names the numbers. Near dusk, the ferris wheel traces arcs of light through the sky.

During its five years as a Labor Day weekend attraction, the animal birthing center has increased in popularity, fair organizers say. This year, they've added the Aug. 22 weekend to a timetable that begins months ahead, with participating farmers breeding or inseminating their cows or pigs, hoping for deliveries during the fair.

They can plan only so much. Nature yields on its own schedule, regardless of the choreographing of the fair's annual square dance of tourism and agriculture. Both have been called the state's number one industry: It depends which economic formula you use.

Each year it makes more sense to link them, as a population yearning for bucolic lifestyle puts down new roots in subdivisions paving over former pasture land. A hundred years ago, Maryland could boast about 48,700 farms on 5.2 million acres; today, there are about 12,200 on 2.1 million acres, say state agriculture records.

The fair also features dueling robots built by school teams, and a fire-safety lesson in a trailer. But it remains foremost a showcase of livestock and agricultural products and processes that are less and less a part of most Marylanders' daily lives. At the fair, patience earns a few the chance to witness one of the year's 102,000 calf births.

Back in the birthing center, piglets huddle under warming lamps. A previous morning's new arrival bleats and stamps a hoof in his pen. A sow pants as her litter scrambles to connect with teats. Nothing's rehearsed: There've been difficult births and stillborns. This calf's large and needs help.

There's a shout from the front row: She's coming. An animal science student kneels by the agitated Holstein and gently probes the calf's length, arm up to the elbow inside the cow; she carefully inserts a chain, which will be used to help haul the baby out.

Crowd gasps. Mother heaves. Veterinarian tugs. Front hooves first, then nose, folded-back ears, shoulder, spine, tail, back legs - suddenly, the black-and-white-spotted calf's here, slimy and twitching. Cheers echo through the Cow Palace.


It doesn't get better than this.