Student livestock judging teams provide fast track for careers
Katie Maupin recently landed a job as an editor at the National Swine Registry in West Lafayette, Ind. Travis Arp is earning his PhD in meat science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Both testify that being on the livestock judging team at the University of Missouri helped get them where they are today.
Chip Kemp coaches the team. “I met Chip when I was 10 or 11 years old, showing Angus at a county fair,” said Maupin, who grew up in Londell, Mo. “From that time on, it was my goal to be on his judging team. It proved to be exciting, challenging, creative, and huge in terms of communications training.”
Arp grew up in Wisconsin, and his parents run a small purebred cow-calf operation in Missouri. Like Maupin, he started showing cattle when he was small.
“Judging presented an outstanding opportunity to network with people in the industry, and I saw a lot of the country,” Arp said. “I attribute a lot of where I am now to being part of the team.” After earning his doctorate, Arp plans to work in the meat export industry.
Kemp took note of Maupin’s skills when she showed at the Missouri State Fair in high school, and recruited Arp when Arp was a high school sophomore. While you don’t have to start showing as a youth in 4-H and FFA, it gives you a head start. Livestock coaches in the best programs scout for talent similar to a college basketball recruiter.
Judging can be grueling
A look at the numbers shows why college livestock judging puts team members in an elite group. Of approximately 550 undergraduate students in Mizzou’s Animal Science Department, only about 10 are asked to join the livestock judging team each year. Not all team members major in animal science, but all are in the agriculture program. Iowa State and Oklahoma State universities also field top judging teams, and their team rosters range from seven to 17.
Some schools also have dairy and equine teams, but livestock team members must become experts at judging four species—beef cattle, sheep, swine and meat goats. During a show, they spend a few minutes observing eight classes of livestock, and two minutes to verbally justify their rankings of each class to a panel of professional judges.
“You have to digest a lot of information, make snap decisions, and deliver concise, well-argued information,” Kemp said.
Team members can only compete for one year. Usually, a meat evaluation class is a prerequisite. Typically, members practice in the first semester of their junior year, and begin judging in January at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Co.
January can be brutal, Kemp admits, with a lot of 16-hour days in cold weather, practicing judging livestock at farms across Missouri. “We work hard but we have a blast!” Kemp said. He appreciates the Missouri producers who invite the team to their farms. “They know these are the ag leaders of the future.”
In February, university judging teams move on to shows in Mississippi and Texas. Members usually spend summers helping conduct high-school judging camps and working at the State Fair.
Fall shows include the Kansas City American Royal. The season concludes with the national championship at the North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE) in Louisville, Ky.
Kemp, who is 40 years old, has seen a huge improvement in skills from when he was a student judging team member at Mizzou. “I’m blown away by what we demand of our students today,” he said. “I own team members for three days a week, and we’re on the road a lot, but they still maintain a full class load and meet high academic standards.”
OSU and Iowa State bring home ribbons
Coach Kemp began judging at the professional level when he became a professor at Mizzou. He thrives on the competitive nature of his job. His judging teams compete head-to-head with top teams at other universities, including Iowa State and Oklahoma State. All three university judging programs go back about a century.
Mark Johnson has coached Oklahoma State’s judging team since 1992. He grew up showing cattle in southwest Missouri, and went on to join the OSU judging team in 1985. In addition to teaching and coaching, he’s also responsible for OSU’s beef cow herd.
According to Johnson, OSU has landed 16 national championships at NAILE, most recently in 2010. What makes OSU successful? “The whole thing perpetuates itself,” Johnson said. “You get great students, they have a great experience, they succeed in their career, and they tell others about us. It’s word of mouth.”
Jonathon DeClerck has coached Iowa State’s livestock judging team for three years. Each year, his team competes in eight to 10 national contests around the country. They’re on the road 30 nights a year, and the hard work seems to pay off. “Iowa State teams have captured 20 national championships—the most of any institution,” DeClerck said. As a student, he served on the Texas A&M team, another top judging program.
Last year, DeClerck added, 34 universities competed at NAILE. The number of teams competing remains steady. Even though farm numbers are declining, all three coaches report that interest in joining livestock judging teams also remains strong.
Program builds career skills
Beyond learning about livestock, judging prepares students for the real world. “What’s more important than winning is preparing students with life skills they need for a career,” Johnson said.
OSU surveys team members after graduation. Johnson said their feedback emphasizes three skills they learn through the program: critical thinking, communication and decision-making.
The students also hone team-building skills. “They’re building life-long memories as they compete in contests around the country,” DeClerck said.
As for the type of jobs that team members fill after graduating, “The jobs are as varied as the students,” Kemp said. “When you study agriculture, there are no limits. If you’re a successful student, the world is your oyster.”
Besides Maupin, Mizzou’s other 2010 team members went on to careers in feed sales, beef marketing and firearm supplies. At OSU, team members have gone on to earn law, medical and dental degrees, and other post-graduate careers include agricultural sales and banking. Most Iowa State team members take jobs in the agricultural industry, DeClerck reported, but many continue to help on the family farm or raise their own livestock.
Kemp enjoys seeing introverts blossom into confident communicators, creative students learning structure, and students of all stripes taking home awards.
“Every kid gets something different out of judging,” he said. “But what really fires me up is when students like Maupin translate their ability to judge into landing a job as a successful industry leader. That’s more important than a ribbon or a plaque on the wall.”
Judges see changes in livestock
Over the years, Mizzou livestock judging coach Chip Kemp has seen meat trends come and go.
“When it comes to cattle, what students see in the show ring roughly reflects cattle in production,” Kemp said. By contrast, show hogs generally comprise a more elite quality than those sold in the marketplace.
Livestock of all species have moderated in size over the last 10 or 12 years—probably as a result of higher feed prices.
Kemp has seen trends toward fat and lean meat bounce around a bit. “Lean was everything for a while,” he said. “But producers learned that animals with no fat didn’t gain weight fast enough. Producers are paid by the pound, and they need animals to gain weight quickly. Consumers demand lean meat, but they also want the flavor that fat brings. You’ve got to strike a balance.”