A farmhand guided Delarenzo, a 1,153-pound steer, into the narrow confines of a metal box. Only his massive head peered out from the cage. Farmer Fred Lechlider held the steer's face steady against his leg, while livestock specialist Scott Barao stood poised beside him.

"Ready, nose wiper?" Barao said.

And so it began. Lechlider wiped the creature's wet nose with a cow-sized tissue and Barao dabbed it quickly with an ink pad. By the end of the day, the two had recorded the identities of 100 cattle.

Noseprints.

"It's just like fingerprinting for people," said Christy Crawford, Delarenzo's 16-year-old owner.

Tell that to the steers who lined up to be noseprinted yesterday at Montgomery County's 42nd annual Agricultural Fair.

Some looked at Barao nonchalantly as he pushed an ink pad and then a 3-by-5 card into their large muzzles. "Perfect. Textbook," he said proudly after scrutinizing one of the prints.

Jet-black Battle Calf did not seem impressed. He squirmed. He twitched his ears. And finally, all he could do was moo, loudly, to register his complaint.

Noseprinting is a form of cattle identification with a serious purpose: to prevent cheating in the big-money world of steer competition.

At fairs in other states, problems have arisen when owners have switched champion-quality steers with other animals, selling the substitutes at champion prices or passing them off as prize-winners at other shows. A champion steer can be sold for up to $5,000, according to Drew Stabler, a Montgomery County 4-H Beef Club leader.

Barao emphasized that there have been no recorded cases of steer-switching in Maryland, and that the noseprinting program is a preventive measure.

"Maryland is progressive because it wants to head off problems," he said.

But cheating was the least of Barao and Lechlider's problems yesterday.

The hardest part of taking a steer's noseprint is keeping the animal's formidable snout dry.

The prize steers sweated profusely through their muzzles. The water-soluble ink often wound up on the card as a fat smudge rather than a distinctive print of swirls and dots.

"It tastes like silage," Barao quipped, as one steer stubbornly tried to avoid the noseprinters' ink pad.

Mary Burdett was more sympathetic to the steers' plight. Owner of Spuds, who like his commercial canine namesake has a white face with black markings under his eyes, Burdett said the animals tend not to like "strange actions." She urged compassion.

"It probably just tickles," she said. "But you get nervous when you go to the dentist and they hold your head down for the drill, don't you?"

Barao said he will keep the noseprints on file until Friday, when the steer competition is completed.

After that, he noted, the steers and their noses will be headed for the slaughterhouse.