In judging livestock, it’s all in the details

Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran

HARRINGTON — More than 40 Future Farmers of America and 4-H members put their livestock knowledge to the test Monday morning at the annual livestock judging competition at the Delaware State Fair.

“I’m not nervous. I’ve grown up around animals my whole life and I show pigs and sheep,” said Lake Forest student Mason Hay, 9. “I know what to look for.”

Mason is a 4-H member and competed against a small pool of middle school students while most the other competitors were from high schools across the state.

“Since my students are only middle school, I only have them for one marking period of animal science,” said A.G. Waters Middle teacher Marion Handlin. “I think a few of them are nervous because it’s their first time, but they’re only competing against other middle schoolers,”

Unlike the majority of competitors who grew up in a rural area or even on a farm, only one of Ms. Handlin’s students has an agricultural background as Appoquinimink School District is in a suburban area.

From growing up on a beef cattle farm, Nick Shane of Smyrna Middle said he knew exactly what to look for when judging the six rounds including cows, goats, pigs and sheep.

“Now we’re judging the goats and the most important things to look for are the length and width of the loin because that’s one of the main cuts of meat,” he said.

The legs of market animals are another important aspect when judging.

“You have to look at them from behind and look at the shape of their body which is a good indication of the strength of their legs,” he said. “So the animals you’re going to put in first place will be tall and have a good shape that indicates strong muscles which means more, quality meat.”

For four of the categories, the goal was only to place four animals in order of quality from best to worst for either breed or market, but sometimes just a look isn’t enough.

“We’re are allowed to touch the animals which is a big help when judging them because sometimes your visual opinion can be changed by feeling their shape and muscles so it’s an important component,” said Kelsie Arisman, 16, of Newark Charter.

She added that this year, the most difficult animals to judge were the pigs.

“The four we were given were all from the same breeder so they’re all really similar so you have to pay close attention to get them in the right order,” she said.

Two of the six categories required more than just placing the animals in order from the best to worst, there was an oral component — the students had to verbally justify their placing to the judges which required thorough note-taking during the evaluation process.

“They’ll have to explain to us their logic for choosing the order they did using all the proper industry terminology which not only helps them with animal science but will improve their communication and critical thinking skills too,” said competition co-chair Keith Shane.

He added that most of the students have participated before and to prepare for the competition use a judging manual to be prepared for both the judging and verbal portions of the competition.

“What we do here today is a culmination of what they’ve learned in animal science and through their 4-H or FFA groups,” he said. “But there are other competitions during the year which clubs will do as practice to prepare for this.”

Ms. Handlin’s first-time students have especially put in extra work since they were only allotted one marking period of animal science.

“The kids are dedicated and have done some practice competitions and have spent some of their summer preparing for today’s competition,” she said.
“For some of them, animal science was the first time they ever really encountered livestock so the practice was important.”

Final competition scores can be found outside the FFA building near the machinery lot on the fairgrounds.

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