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Herds of sheep fill fair

From sheep showmanship and shearing to lamb look-alikes and lip-licking goodies, the 2008 Merced County Fair is all about these often-misunderstood livestock.

The fair's "Come Rock with the Flock" theme is an ode to the many sheep raised throughout Merced County. In 2006, there were 36,918 head of sheep -- worth nearly $4.4 million -- in Merced County, according to the county's crop report for the year.

To honor these fluffy friends, fair organizers have incorporated many lamb-related items into this year's festivities. Young fairgoers can make sheep bookmarks Friday night in the Kids' Art building.

Jantz Cafe and Bakery will sponsor a shepherd's pie baking contest Saturday night in the Home Art Building. There will even be a sheep-shearing demonstration nightly at 6 o'clock near Old MacDonald's Farm and Petting Barn.

Those interested in history can check out a sheepwagon from the 1950s in the ag building, where building superintendent Ty Shaeffer has added some accessories to the bare-bones trailer once lived in by area sheepherders.

"Can you imagine," Shaeffer exclaimed. "I bet it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter."

The ag building is also full of mock sheep made by elementary schools or other groups from across the county. The life-size ewes and bucks -- whose bodies were created out of wooden sawhorses painted black -- are decorated with much more than fluffy wool.

There is an Elvis sheep, named King of the Flock, complete with a black-sequinned jacket and rhinestone-covered shoes. Another dons a poodle skirt and rollerskates. A third grandmother-themed sheep is wrapped in a wool blanket and peers over her reading glasses at passers-by.

But, as with most county fairs, most of the sheep are in the livestock barns. There were 112 market lambs and breeding sheep entered by 4-H and Future Farmers of America members. Most of those sheep were on display in the Nolet Arena first thing Tuesday morning.

One of those lambs was Jackson, a Dorset lamb named after a character on the popular television show "Hannah Montana."

"He acts like him," said 10-year-old Jeremiah Coleman, a member of the Dos Palos 4-H club and proud owner of Jackson.

Coleman has been in 4-H for three years, but this is his first time showing a sheep at the fair. "I was a little nervous," he said. "But I practiced a lot with my 4-H leader." That leader happens to be his mom, Katherine Coleman, who has been helping her older daughter Hannah show lambs for years.

Jeremiah Coleman placed first in his market class, making Jackson a 4-H champion market sheep with a build that will make his meat top-notch once butchered. But the victory was a bittersweet one for his mother.

"He competed against his sister (Hannah)," Katherine said. "Their lambs are twins."

But even though Hannah didn't finish before her younger brother, the family still plans to keep raising sheep for fairs.

"They're fun to handle," Jeremiah said. "They have personalities."

And they aren't as dumb as people think they are, the family said. "They actually end up being a lot like family dogs," joked Katherine.

Later in the day, 4-H members were judged on their skills in the ring during the showmanship competition. Keri Court, who has been showing lambs in the McSwain 4-H club for seven years, took second place in advanced sheep showmanship Tuesday.

This 15-year old chalked her win up to experience. "The more you do it the better you get at it," she said. "You can't be nervous; the lambs feel it."

Court was complimented by sheep judge Clemente Ayon during the showmanship competition for her smooth transitions and confidence in her skills.

"When you're out there, you've got to show that intensity, show that you want it," Ayon said.

And if what you want is sheep, the Merced County Fair should satisfy your every wish.

Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or asouza@mercedsun-star.com.

If you go

THEME: "Come rock with the flock"

ADMISSION: Adults and teens are $8. Today is Kids Day; children under 12 are free.

HOURS: 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

HIGHLIGHTS: Destruction Derby, 7 p.m. in the grandstand; Rooney, 9 p.m. in the outdoor theater. Shows are free with fair admission.

WHERE: 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Merced

ONLINE: www.mercedcountyfair.com

A more detailed fair schedule can be found on page A4.


Fun facts about sheep

There are about 1 billion sheep on Earth.

Sheep have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of hearing.

Of all the red meats, lamb has the lowest cholesterol.

One pound of sheep wool can be made into 10 miles of yarn.

Sheep's milk has more protein and fat than cow's milk.

A baby lamb can identify its mother by the noises she makes, called bleats.

A 1-year-old sheep is called a hogget. A 2-year-old sheep is called a two-tooth.

Source: Merced County Fair

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