It was mid-March many years ago that my Dad loaded his nine-year-old son up on a Sunday afternoon and they went down to the Telleen’s dairy to judge Brown Swiss cows. It was my first judging workout and it set the stage for what soon became the most exciting thing in that nine-year-old dairy kid’s life. While we raised Holsteins at the time, I was excited to see the big, Brown Swiss cows and was challenged by the differences between the two breeds.
As the summer wore on that year, each Sunday afternoon was consumed with judging dairy cattle. First was Brown Swiss at Telleen’s, then Holsteins at our barn; Guernseys at Burkhart’s and Ayrshires at Tigner’s. Slowly Coach Bill Gustafson honed our judging skills and taught us how to explain our decisions to a judge. By state fair time we were razor-sharp. But so were 200 other Iowa dairy kids. We didn’t win that year – we were not even in the top ten – but we learned a lot about cows, public speaking and ourselves.
Over the next two summers that tight-knit group of kids worked hard to become better cattle judges. And we improved, finally winning the Iowa contest our third year out. The excitement and energy carried on to the kids behind us and for a few years Webster County dairy kids were always near the top at the state fair contest.
None of us fully understood what we had learned during those summers. Looking back, most of us went on to judge at the college level and state or regional shows, but that really doesn’t tell the story of what we learned either. Of the eight on the original squad, two own their own ag businesses, two own their own dairies and have exhibited state fair champions, three are Extension professionals and one is a fixture in the Iowa political landscape. We have talked together about those days and we all agree that the most important things we learned were the ability to think on our feet, focus on a problem and defend our decisions.
Youthful judges often only see the surface of the judging program – the parts of the dairy cow or the attributes of muscle and finish on the steer- and those observations are important in understanding whatever is being judged. But the real benefit is the skill of observation and the power of logical thinking that gives judges confidence in their decisions. Coupled with oral reasons, students are trained to think and talk on their feet, articulate the basis for their decisions in a convincing fashion and do this all with the time management skills of a corporate comptroller.
In a time when the desire to achieve and accomplish seems reserved for those in athletics, youth livestock judges develop a competitive attitude and a desire to achieve. These life skills become part of the whole person; benefiting these young people and their communities with more engaged and competent citizens. Make no mistake, these attributes get noticed by every-day citizens, college recruiters, employers, and elected officials.
The state fair dairy judging contest is set for Wednesday, August 9 and teams from across Iowa will compete. I congratulate those who have worked hard to earn their spot on each team and thank the leaders and coaches for volunteering their time and expertise to inspire these youth people.