Animal judging: Meat judging

This series of articles will introduce animal judging – what it is, the life skills it helps youth to develop, where it can take youth, and why everyone should try it!

This is the sixth and final article in a series from Michigan State University Extension discussing how animal and animal product judging benefits 4-H members now and in all their future endeavors. Alexis (Lexie) Siomka is a Michigan State University (MSU) senior in Animal Science and coach of the MSU Meat Judging Team. Siomka started at MSU in 2010 and is in her final semester before moving to Fargo, North Dakota to begin her graduate studies at North Dakota State University in Meat Science. Siomka began studying beef cattle management when she started at MSU and felt it was also important to learn about the meat production side of raising livestock. Through the help and encouragement of mentors in the department, she quickly discovered her passion for meat science and meat judging. She worked in the MSU Meat Lab, managed by Jennifer Dominguez, for three years and was a member of the 2013 Meat Judging Team. Siomka was an assistant coach to head coach Sarah Wells in the spring of 2014 and assumed the role of head coach of the collegiate team, as well as teaching the meat evaluation classes in the fall of this year.  

Melissa: Can you briefly describe what meat judging is?
Siomka: Meat judging involves the evaluation of livestock carcasses and meat wholesale cut classes. There are many characteristics that we look at while evaluating and ranking the class, including trimness and muscling factors, along with the overall quality of the meat. All of these factors combined will affect the final product we buy in the grocery store. Most contests will include classes of beef, pork, and lamb carcasses, as well as a beef and pork wholesale cut classes. Additioanlly, there will be a table of specs. Specs, or specifications, are cuts of meat that are to be evaluated in regards to how each of these major cuts are presented and prepared. However, other species like veal and turkey, or processed meats like summer sausage or lunch meats may also appear. Evaluation is based on a visual inspection of the class except for processed meats where the products are visual inscpected and tasted. The most common classes are a beef, pork and lamb carcass evaluation and a beef and pork cut class. That is the actual meat judging aspect of the contests, but there are so many other skills that are developed and benefits that come from participating on a judging team.

Melissa: As a coach, what are the biggest benefits you see for individuals who judge?
Siomka: Networking is a major benefit for those who participate in meat judging. At every contest there are about 17 universities and colleges that participate, each team can range from having four to fifteen members. There are a lot of student social events to meet others from across the country, as well to interact with coaches. Every contest has a corporate sponsor, like Tyson or Cargill, that talks with the students about job opportunities and other ways to stay active in the meat industry. Most of the coaches have been coaching for many years or are current graduate students; they serve as wonderful resources for pursing graduate studies or making further industry connections. Meat judging also opens students’ minds and provides them first-hand insight to the meat industry. Not many people are aware of how meat products are prepared, where they come from, what affects quality, or how the products are priced for sale. Meat judging provides all this information and helps to make these students smarter consumers who can share this knowledge. Understanding the meat side is very helpful for the live animal side to know exactly what the final product is and the impact of management practices. Finally, writing skills as well as problem solving skills will be improved. Meat judging differs from many other types of judging because reasons are written instead of delivered through a short oral presentation. The reasons must still be clear, concise, and persuasive, but are delivered through a different means of communication. Grammar, spelling, and organization are all important to convince an official this placing is correct. If the student does not place the class the same as the judge but still provides an excellent sent of written reasons, they can do very well in in the contest.  

Melissa: What has been your favorite part of coaching?
Siomka: Watching the confidence level of the students grow is one of the best parts. The team members are ready to defend their placing and do not doubt themselves. They are proud of what they are doing, working hard, and really putting their knowledge to use.

Melissa: What have you learned while being the coach of this team?
Siomka: Being on the coach’s side instead of a team member has opened my eyes to the amount of work and dedication it takes to help a team be successful, but it is all very worth it. I’ve also learned that just because an individual is a coach, he or she is not always 100 percent correct. My team members and students can sometimes catch things that I missed, so I’m constantly learning from them too and refining my skills. The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from being a coach is how important relationships and community are for the team to be a success. I am very passionate about meat judging and I wanted to ensure that the university kept the program going this fall during the search for a new meat science specialist. It takes a lot of work from many people sharing their expertise and passion to make this happen. I’m very grateful for Jennifer Dominguez and Ryan Varner for their help this semester, and many other faculty and staff members in Animal Science. I’ve learned so many new interpersonal skills and am very excited to continue my studies as a graduate student!

Melissa: Does the team travel? If so, where?
Siomka: Yes, we travel to five contests during our fall season. We log many miles on the road and on planes, but it serves as a great bonding time for the team. This is important for them to work as a cohesive whole and build each other up. These trips make for lifetime memories and friendships. The contests that we travel to are organized by the American Meat Science Association and are the Southeastern Intercollegiate Meat Judging Contest, Eastern National Meat Judging Contest, American Royal Meat Judging Contest, High Plains Meat Judging Contest, and International Meat Judging Contest. There are a few contests in the spring that we travel to and use as practice events for the following fall season.

Melissa: Besides content knowledge about meat science, what other skills are developed in judging that will benefit individuals outside of the arena?
Siomka: Writing skills for certain. We spend a great deal of time writing practice sets of reasons in additional to what has to be written during every contest. No matter what career path team members take, they will have to be able to write and write well because this is the perfect place to practice. Critical and logical thinking is practiced with every class judged. There are many things that must be evaluated and considered for the placing and then knowing how to defend that choice. The students are on their own in the contest; there is no conferring with teammates, so they need to develop their own methods of deciding and stating their case. Both of those skills – writing and creating their own voice – helps to build confidence as well as helps to improve problem solving and desion-making skills. When anyone starts judging, no matter what they are looking at, there is little more knowledge presented to them, and with dedication and hard work, they will become the best at what they do! I can see their confidence grow as they learn and practice and this confidence carries over into so many other areas of life. Judging changes students for the better and I am very lucky to be a part of that.

Melissa: What career possibilities can come from livestock judging?
Siomka: There so many possibilities that can come from meat judging. Some students may follow my same chosen and attend graduate school for a masters or PhD. It opens doors for coaching or teaching at a college or university if one wants to stay in academia. If industry is the career goal, these possibilities are almost limitless. A few specific ones would be a carcass sales manager, quality control, or managing a plant. One could work with raw products or processed meats or packaging of or raw or processed meat. There are government jobs with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an inspector or conducting research. There are so many options and possibilities, many of which I am still exploring.

Melissa: What if a 4-H member wants to start judging before attending college, where should they start learning about and practicing judging?
Siomka: Start within your own county or area to see if there is a club or team already interested in meat science. The American Meat Science Association has resources for 4-H clubs that will be helpful too. MSU Extension has a downloadble presentation about beef retail cuts and snap shot about the project that with Michigan specific information on the meat science project.

Melissa: Would you recommend 4-H youth try judging before they go to college?
Yes! Whether it is meat judging or livestock judging, it is an amzazing experience and very interesting! It is important to start building the life skills of decision making, critical thinking, and communicating ideas as soon as possible. These skills can never be developed too early.

Melissa: Thank you Lexie for taking the time to share your experiences as the meat judging coach at MSU.

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