The Butter Cow, sculpted by West Des Moines artist Sarah Pratt, is one of the most popular attractions at the fair. The life-size sculpture made entirely of butter has been the icon of the fair since 1911.
The Butter Cow, sculpted by West Des Moines artist Sarah Pratt, is one of the most popular attractions at the fair. The life-size sculpture made entirely of butter has been the icon of the fair since 1911.

On Sunday, Aug. 11, the animal-rights group Iowans for Animal Liberation attacked the sacred symbol of the Iowa State Fair — the Butter Cow. Fair personnel scraped the red-painted “Freedom for All” off the life-sized sculpture and applied a fresh coat of butter before the fair opened for the day, but still, Iowans were incensed. This was the iconic Butter Cow after all — a fair highlight since 1911. And this was the Iowa State Fair, sacred ground to beef producers and those who support them.

The Iowa State Fair is one of the largest in the country and the inspiration for stage and song. Phil Strong’s novel State Fair was written about the Iowa State Fair and spawned a Broadway musical and three movies. It’s listed in the New York Times’ “1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die.”

Iowa's sacred cowsMore than 1 million people pass through its gates each year.

Yet, the Iowa fair remains at its heart a celebration of agriculture. The Ag Building, where the Butter Cow resides, is filled with corn,  vegetables and honey. The barns are filled with animals, and five show rings stay active throughout the 11-day event. In all, more than 60,000 exhibits are on display.

“I think Iowa is very unique when you compare it to other states just in the way we do everything we can to get agriculture in front of folks, whether that’s livestock or crops or ag manufacturing within the state,” says Matt Deppe, CEO of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association (ICA).

Iowa's sacred cowsFor the ICA and the Iowa Beef Industry Council, the effort begins the first Saturday of the fair with the Governor’s Charity Steer Show, an annual event that raises money for Ronald McDonald houses. This year’s show  raised $185,000 as 25 prize animals, led through the ring by celebrities like Gov. Terry Branstad, Market to Market host Mike Pearson and PRCA calf roping champion Billy Huber, were purchased by generous donors.

“It’s a great effort for a good cause,” Deppe says, “and one more way to connect with consumers in the general public, who maybe don’t see a farm every day, that our cattlemen care about people.”

For the rest of the fair Deppe and his crew are perched just inside the door of the cattle barn, next to the Biggest Bull, where public education is the main mission. “It’s just a great opportunity to show people what’s happening in ag and livestock and show them the technologies we’re using to produce a safe, wholesome product at an affordable price,” he says.

Iowa's sacred cowsConsumers are exposed to beef on the hoof through the more than 3,500 beef exhibits at the fair each year. This year, 3,631 beef animals were entered in the fair, representing every corner of the state and a multitude of breeds. More than 2,000 were Open Class, the rest 4-H and FFA projects.

Fairgoers also get a taste of beef through samples in the Ag and Varied Industry buildings and at the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters, one of the more popular eateries on the fairgrounds for nearly 30 years. In a venue where  literally thousands of culinary options are available at any given time, diners stand in line for a hot beef sundae (a bowl full of mashed potatoes, beef shavings and gravy), a fresh grilled hamburger, prime rib that rivals the finest restaurants, and even deep-fried Prairie Oysters. The Beef Quarters is manned entirely by volunteers —1,200 each year from 70 county cattlemen associations — producers who spend a day a year sweating over the grill, bussing tables and taking orders in the name of promoting their product.

Iowa's sacred cows“The producers who work here have a passion for the industry,” says Deb Bettin of Odebolt, Iowa, who has managed the kitchen for nine years and sees customers step into the kitchen on a daily basis to complement the cooks. “When you eat here, you know the food is prepared and served by people who raise quality cattle. It’s beef that is raised, prepared and served with pride and passion.”

Across the fairgrounds, preparing tasty beef is the focus of another fair staple — the Farm Bureau Cookout Contest. In its 50th year, the overall Cookout King prize went to Justin Palmer of Winterset, Iowa, for his smoked boneless beef ribs prepared with a whiskey rub and maple bacon glaze.

A few short steps away, on an impeccably horticultured stretch of lawn, part of the 445- acre fairgrounds, fairgoers pose for photos with cardboard cutouts of the Butter Cow. More than 6,000 of them purchased “Butter Cow Security” t-shirts from fair souvenir stands following the vandals’ attack, sending a message that is loud and clear.

“If you read any of the comments on the news story, you saw the very frank appreciation for what producers do,” Deppe says. “People here want beef. But they have questions, and it’s our responsibility to answer them. I think we’ve got a lot of youth and adults who show here that see it as their responsibility, too, as they exhibit their livestock. That’s the great thing about the fair. It provides us that opportunity.”