Michigan youth travel to Maryland State Fair to refine dairy cattle judging skills

Twenty-five 4-H members, alumni and MSU Extension volunteers traveled from Michigan to Maryland to practice dairy evaluation and life skills.

4-H members and MSU students visit the Jefferson Memorial
Michigan 4-H youth and MSU students take a break from judging cattle by visiting the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo by Melissa Elischer

For many around the state, Labor Day weekend heralds the end of summer with one last long weekend before fall starts to make its presence known. But for some Michigan 4-H members, alumni and Michigan State University (MSU) Extension volunteers, this weekend is something different. Labor Day weekend is the start of the competitive dairy cattle judging season, which runs through early November. For 15 years, Joe Domecq, MSU academic specialist and coordinator of dairy education programs in the Department of Animal Science and Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT), has brought a group of 4-H members, volunteers and MSU students to the Maryland State Fair to refine dairy judging skills for three national judging contests held each fall.

4-H members earned an invitation to the trip by placing in the top 25 seniors (ages 15-19) who took part in the state 4-H dairy cattle judging contest held every July during Michigan 4-H Youth Dairy Days, an annual event hosted by MSU Extension and the Department of Animal Science. After that, youth attend additional practices across the state from July through August to continue evaluating cattle and defending their choice through a presentation of oral reasons. Those 4-H members who work hard during statewide practices are then invited to an intensive weekend of judging in Maryland. MSU students vying for a spot on the collegiate or IAT teams are also invited to practices and the trip to Maryland.

During the weekend, youth and students judge close to 30 classes of cattle and present 12 sets of oral reasons. They start the weekend by evaluating seven paper classes. Paper classes mean the class of four animals to be evaluated are pictured on paper from three angles (rear, side and top) instead of seeing the animals live. Practicing like this allows 4-H members and MSU students to focus on big picture differences in cattle, such as structure and udder conformation. Several classes are chosen for practicing oral reasons, which is the part of the contest where participants must explain why they ranked the cattle in the order they did.

On Friday, everyone attends the 4-H dairy show at the Maryland State Fair to listen to the official placings of the cattle classes, learning how professionals talk about cattle and examples of phrases to use in competition. Saturday morning, youth and students sideline the Maryland state 4-H dairy cattle judging contest, standing outside the ring and evaluating the classes while working in small groups to discuss placings. After viewing 10 classes of animals, everyone prepares six sets of reasons. Sunday is the final day of the trip, starting with a practice contest of eight to 12 classes where other universities and 4-H programs practice as well. Three more sets of reasons are given on the road back to Michigan and the weekend is complete.

In addition to youth and students, assistant coaches who are alumni of the dairy judging program come back to volunteer their time and talents, helping the young people improve their skills. Sarah Black has been helping with the trip for many years. She was a member of both the 4-H and collegiate teams and now both of her children are in 4-H and are part of the judging program.

After the trip, coaches work together to select the teams that will represent Michigan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, during the All-American Dairy Show; Madison, Wisconsin, at the World Dairy Expo; and Louisville, Kentucky, at the North American International Livestock Exposition.

The weekend isn’t all work. Youth traveling, learning and practicing together create new friendships and strengthen old ones. There are laughs through euchre tournaments after giving reasons, sing-alongs on the bus, and much more where peer-to-peer and mentoring relationships are established with 4-H members and MSU students coming together for a common purpose.

In addition to learning about judging cattle, groups take advantage of being so close to Gettysburg, PennsylvaniaWashington, D.C. or the Baltimore Inner Harbor in Maryland to learn more about U.S. history. This year, the group visited Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, as well as the Air Force Memorial. Saturday was a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and stops at the JeffersonLincolnVietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans Memorials.

Although dairy cattle may be the initial draw for youth and students to start judging, there are other skills developed that will serve them outside of the cattle industry. Those that participate in dairy judging learn about discipline, self-motivation, critical thinking, decision-making, goal setting, resiliency, communication and much more. These skills are transferable to all areas of life and will certainly help youth and students to be successful in the future.

The 2022 4-H Dairy Judging Boot Camp was sponsored with a grant from the Michigan 4-H Foundation.

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