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Young judges size up their craft

It’s an honour, not a career

Young as they may seem, today’s up-and-coming beef cattle judges bring a lot of experience to show rings.

Michael Wheeler, Wheeler’s Stock Farm, Saskatoon, Sask., and Kyle Lewis, Lewis Farms, Spruce Grove, Alta., came up through a dozen or so years as 4-H and junior breed association members to judge major shows such as Canadian Western Agribition and Farm Fair International.

4-H lays a solid foundation in cattle evaluation and terminology. Each year at achievement day, members judge a set of cattle and write judging cards explaining their placings. Club winners advance to regional, then provincial competitions and ultimately to the Canadian National 4-H and Youth Judging Competition hosted by Agribition.

Wheeler’s first experience judging a major show came when he won the Canadian competition in 2002 and with it an opportunity to be on the judging panel of the first Lady Classic at Agribition.

Team judging was coming into play in his later years of 4-H and is now mostly offered at junior breed show events. It’s a show ring class where one team member places the animals and gives oral reasons for the placings while the other gains experience in ring steward duties.

Lewis says 4-H gave him the basics. It was an exciting day when the whole clan — he and his sister and three cousins — would go out to the pasture to pick their 4-H heifers each year. “Dad guided us, but the final decision was ours so we learned on our own what to look for,” he says. Nobody wanted to be off base because winnings were pooled and split between the five of them.

He picked up the finer details as the years went by through his involvement in the Young Canadian Simmental Association and as a junior judge with his dad. “Judging became harder because of the uniform groups of cattle so it had to get down to the finer details and we learned from seasoned teachers who had done it themselves,” he says.

Some young people continue with livestock judging during their post-secondary years. In Canada, there are colleges and universities with stockman’s or judging clubs, but not at the level of the U.S. college credit programs with professional coaches and extensive travel to competitions.

Many U.S. colleges offer judging scholarships along the line of sports scholarships that attract young Canadians south to continue their education.

Between teaching, coaching and judging shows, a few people in the U.S. have even been able to make a career of livestock judging. That’s not the case in Canada, though. Depending on the level of competition, show committees may be able to cover expenses or offer an honorarium.

“People don’t judge for the money,” Wheeler says. “They judge more to give back to youth and because it’s an honour to be asked and an opportunity to gain experience.”

Lewis agrees. He says it’s humbling to be asked to judge because it means people appreciate your eye for cattle and respect the type of cattle you raise and that they will work for the real world.

Training is just one part of carving a path in the world of livestock judging. “It’s a matter of gaining experience and showing your talent by taking opportunities to judge when you get them and building on them,” Wheeler adds.

Both he and Lewis started with 4-H and still do judge 4-H achievement days and junior breed shows. There’s not as much opportunity on the summer fair circuit as in the past because many fairs no longer have cattle shows and there are fewer stock at those that do.

However, the Saskatchewan Association of Agricultural Societies and Exhibitions (SAASE) still offers apprenticeship judging opportunities for senior 4-H members and adults interested in becoming beef cattle judges. If an agricultural society has someone in mind and the official show judge is comfortable with taking on an apprentice, then the society can apply to SAASE for up to $150 to help cover the apprentice’s expenses to shadow judge for the day.

The junior judging idea is similar, but not as formal, Lewis explains. Sometimes a father and son or husband and wife are asked to judge as a duo, and other times a senior judge may simply ask another person to help out.

Wheeler feels there’s always a need to train more judges. “We are in a better position than 20 years ago, though, because we learned that we have to train young people in judging and give them opportunities.”

Opportunities remain fairly slim for people beyond their 4-H, junior breed association and post-secondary years to get a start in judging. Wheeler says that’s why the Saskatchewan Angus Association has discussed the possibility of offering judging courses. Lots of people are raising good cattle but need experience on the judging side and even 4-Hers need refreshers once in a while.

One part know-how; one part skill

You need to be able to think on your feet, be decisive with placings in the ring, and have the confidence to take the microphone to explain your placings to exhibitors and spectators. The ability to justify placings can make the difference between a good judge and an excellent judge.

“People who enjoy cattle and judging don’t find the public speaking aspect all that intimidating because it’s easy to talk about something if you are passionate about it,” Lewis says. “Above all, a good judge has to be a good cattle person to start with.”

Sure, there are lots of armchair judges, but generally people are polite. They realize it’s one person’s opinion that day, Wheeler says. The real reason they are there is to present their genetics to the public and spectators will make their own decisions as to what will work in their own breeding programs.

For him, pressure has more to do with time constraints and keeping things moving along especially when there are a lot of large classes. This is when it’s more important than ever to prioritize what you are looking for, stay focused and be decisive, he suggests. First impression is big for him. Many times he’ll have his top picks within a few minutes of the class entering the ring and the first impressions start to sort out fairly quickly once he gets a closer look at each animal. What’s really tough is when all of the animals leave a good first impression.

“If you do an honest job and can justify your placings, I think that’s the best you can do, so don’t let your nerves get to you,” Lewis says.

As for the cattle know-how part, judging isn’t breed specific in that people who raise a certain breed of cattle only judge shows for that breed.

Wheeler, who judged the 2013 Canadian Junior Beef Extreme show at Agribition, says the basics are the same for all breeds, but if a breed emphasizes certain traits, then he looks to see that the animal exhibits those traits.

On the commercial side

This leads to another unique aspect of beef cattle judging — there isn’t a standardized ideal beef animal as there is in the dairy industry, for example, Wheeler explains. This is because of differing environments where beef cattle are raised, so people have their own ideas, preferences and priorities of what an ideal animal should look like. Even though there are certain structural characteristics that are important in all environments, such as sound udders and feet, what one person considers good, another may call excellent. Taking opportunities to judge and seeing more top-end cattle across all breeds really helps to get a better idea of good versus mediocre or great.

“As industry moves ahead with technology and other selection tools, maybe some of the basic things aren’t emphasized enough. That’s why I think it’s as important as ever to train young people on visual evaluation,” says Wheeler.

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