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Taking on the lifelong lessons of livestock judging

More than just learning how to evaluate livestock, youth participants in livestock judging are gaining real workforce development skills.

Young people sit in an auditorium-like sale barn and look at four sheep in the ring. The young people are holding notebooks. Some are writing. Some of them are wearing blue FFA jackets. The sheep in the ring have not been sheared recently and have black faces.
4-H and FFA members judge a group of Hampshire-influenced ewe lambs at a livestock judging contest in Napoleon, North Dakota, on Feb. 5, 2022.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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"There's going to be a livestock judging practice tomorrow night. Was that something you still wanted to try?"

I asked my now-10-year-old daughter the question, half hoping she wanted to do it and half hoping she'd say no to something, just once, if for no other reason than to simplify our schedule.

"Yeah, yeah, I want to do it," she said, with a confidence and enthusiasm I wasn't quite expecting.

I was 10 myself when I competed in my first livestock judging contest. It was kind of an add-on thing to do at the fair that made me eligible for other contests and prizes. I knew very little. I don't recall how I placed, though I assume, looking back, that it was not great.

But years went by, and with the help of leaders and sessions of studying cattle sale catalogs with my dad, I found my name at or near the top of some results and gained confidence in a variety of areas — few of which had anything to do with livestock. The knowledge of that fueled the half of me that was happy Reanna wanted to give it a shot.

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Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht

So, she went to a few practices where she was one of the few non-teenagers. (A big shout-out here to her coach who took on teaching a tough subject to kids with little or no experience in it and to our local FFA adviser for letting the 4-H kids join in on some of her practices.) Reanna had some good sessions and some where she considered quitting. Ultimately, I convinced her that she had put in too much practice to stop before her first contest.

The first contest came, and she made it through, with scores that were quite forgettable, and the opinion that it had been "fun." And then came a second contest with rough scores but also with fun memories of riding the bus to the contest with her school's FFA chapter.

She turned a corner at the third contest. Oh, she didn't win. But her name was more in the middle than the bottom. And not only that, but she could tell me clearly about some of the classes she had judged and what decisions she had made.

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The final contest was the state 4-H contest. It was, by far, the biggest one she'd been to, with more than 100 juniors (4-H age 8 to 14) and about 60 seniors (15 to 18). She and her friends assured me they "did horrible" when I caught up with them afterward, even though they hadn't yet heard any official placings.

During the awards ceremony, Leigh Ann Skurupey, a state specialist in the Center for 4-H Youth Development at North Dakota State University, congratulated the participants and talked about all the skills they're gaining. More than just learning how to evaluate livestock, they're gaining real workforce development skills, she said. That struck a chord with me, because I use some of my old livestock judging skills every day, even when I'm nowhere near a pen of four heifers in need of placing.

Their communication skills improve. They learn to make decisions and stick by them. They learn that it's OK if they don't always agree with everyone else. They learn to pay attention to details. They learn to figure out what they like and don't like.

And, when things seem "horrible," they learn that it's OK to have done their best and to move on to the future.

Reanna's final score was OK. For their first time, I think her whole team did great.

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But the best part, to me, was that as we were leaving the NDSU campus, Reanna made a decision that I think will serve her well:

"I'm going to stick with it."

And sticking with something that's hard may be the most important lesson to come out of the experience.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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