The verdicts will be swift and merciless when Andy Cashman steps into the ring at the Prince George's County Fair.

Standing inside a sheep stall at the state fair in Timonium, the 45-year-old livestock judge, tall and thickly built, demonstrates the technique he'll use on the fair's woolly contestants.

"You feel across their back for covering," he says as he runs his fingers over Blue Bell, a 2-year-old black-faced sheep. He cups his hands in a semicircle and gently taps the sheep's back. "You want to make sure it's consistent throughout."

He gingerly examines Blue Bell's loins. "You look for what produces the best offspring," he continues. "Sheep are dual purpose. They are raised for meat and their wool."

Cashman, an animal lover since he was a youngster, rose through the ranks of livestock judging in Maryland 4-H programs. "I gave my first reasons when I was 5," he boasts, using the livestock jargon for noting characteristics used to judge the animals.

In time, Cashman made the Maryland state judging team. National livestock shows followed. Today, he's assistant director for the Maryland State Fair, working 355 days a year to make the remaining 10 in August the stuff of funnel cake dreams.

It's the ideal job for someone like Cashman, who values the agrarian lifestyle the fair celebrates. "I consider myself lucky to be a part of this year-round," he says. "I always ask people, 'Did you have anything to do with agriculture today?' "

"Did you?" he demands.

Well, no.

"Did you eat today?"

Does a McDonald's breakfast bagel count?

"There you go," he exults. "That's wheat and eggs and cheese."

Cashman has left the sheep stall now and is zipping around the fairgrounds in a John Deere motorized cart. He says the key to judging is common sense. Also vital is the ability to track the latest livestock trends. "You kind of have to keep up with the times and keep yourself attuned to what's going on in the industry," Cashman says.

Understanding changes in livestock is critical, agrees Graydon Ripley, the Prince George's County Fair's hog expert.

"Fifty years ago, it was cool to raise hogs that had a lot of back fat," says Ripley, who will be judging the swine competition. "But now the population desires to have meats with lean muscle."

At 25, Ripley is young, but in competitions dominated by teenage 4-H-ers, not unusually so. He learned most of what he knows about animals through 4-H and from growing up on his family's 160-acre farm in Davidsonville. He also received an animal science degree from Cornell University in 1996.

"I'll be looking for hogs that are lean, have a tremendous amount of muscle, eye-appealing and correct," he says. "I will make an assessment about whether they are passing their genetic traits on to their offspring. I'll be judging the animal's carcass and lean muscle growth. You don't want them to be too fat."

Judge Jason Keplinger is uniquely qualified to assess dairy goats. He lives with 30 of them. The 23-year-old software architect and Johns Hopkins student shares his family's three-acre Mount Airy farm with goats that have won championships across the state.

Keplinger's favorite is Windswept Samantha, who won three state fair championships in a row in the early 1990s. Though they have a reputation for grumpiness, dairy goats make pleasant pets, he says.

Sometimes they can even be trained as watchdogs. "Goats being mean is an untruth."

Keplinger will judge the contestants strictly, but he knows firsthand how difficult training the animals can be.

A few years ago, one of the family goats, Snowflake (named for a coat that resembled snowflakes lightly covering the ground), got an acting role in an in-house commercial for an insurance company.

Snowflake put on a fine performance. The goat picked up the phone with her mouth and joined in a toga party at the office, earning the Keplinger family $300.

But after the shoot, the insurance company had to replace the rug in the office where the commercial was shot.

Keplinger ruefully explains. "You can't train them to go to the bathroom."

The Prince George's County Fair takes place 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at the Prince George's Equestrian Center, 14900 Pennsylvania Ave., Upper Marlboro. Admission is $5 for adults, children 10 and younger free. For more information, call 301-952-7999.

CAPTION: Livestock judge Andy Cashman, an animal lover since he was a youngster, talks with 4-H Club members Laura Kramer, left, and Miriam Ani.

CAPTION: Andy Cashman, who will judge sheep this weekend at the Prince George's County Fair, looks at the coat of a sheep at the 4-H animal exhibit at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.