Sarah Mills summed it up this way – “I learned that I could do something that not everybody else can.” Mills was reflecting on her participation in one aspect of Virginia’s livestock judging program as a member of an all-female cattle-working team in Culpeper County. Her mother, Cindy, goes on to add, “I could see her self-confidence grow as she worked on this team. She wasn’t sure she could do it at first, but she did.”
Virginia’s 4-H livestock programs reach hundreds of youth every year, and have been doing so for decades. The largest judging program in Virginia is the Stockmen’s Contest, with about 350 participants at the state level. Other programs, such as meats judging, livestock judging, and cattle working involve more than 200 additional youth.
“Our animal programs help young people learn valuable life skills such as decision making, scientific reasoning, and public speaking,” says Mark Wahlberg, Extension animal science specialist and state leader for livestock programs. “In the judging programs, youth develop decision-making skills by learning about standards and then comparing and contrasting the animals they are reviewing to those standards. Secondly, they learn to defend their decisions in the oral reasons part of the competitions. To be successful, they must organize their thoughts and learn to present them in a confident and poised manner.”
Wahlberg coached the Virginia Livestock Judging Team to a win at the national competition in 2007, where they placed first in a field of 33 teams.
One goal of the Virginia 4-H program is to keep youth involved in 4-H once they become junior- and senior-level members – those 12 through 19.
“4-H enrollment is highest at the 9- to 11-year-old level,” says Cathy Sutphin, interim associate director for 4-H youth development. “Our livestock programs are one way that youth can stay involved in 4-H through their middle and high school years.”
Joe Guthrie of Dublin, Va., who has been involved in agriculture all his life and today is president of the Virginia Cattleman’s Association, was a member of the state livestock judging team as a high school student. “Livestock judging is something you don’t get good at without a lot of hard work and practice,” Guthrie says. “Aside from gaining valuable knowledge about how to evaluate attributes of livestock, the programs teach young people how to formulate an opinion and then express it. I learned how to stand behind my choices – a skill that has been useful to me throughout my life.”
The Stockmen’s Contest requires youth to be knowledgeable about the livestock industry as a whole; identify breeds of beef cattle, sheep, and hogs; and understand animal feeds along with several other requirements. Livestock judging requires knowledge of breeding and the production and performance traits of cattle, swine, sheep, and more.
In the meats judging competition, participants identify several characteristics of a cut of meat, such as the species the cut came from, the name of the cut that would be used in a retail setting, and the type of cut, such as chop, steak, etc.
The cattle-working competition involves teams of three youth each who prepare and administer health products to cattle. A team first develops a written plan to accomplish the tasks, and then executes the plan on three to four head of cattle while being timed and evaluated on technique and safety.