There is no doubt that students on the Virginia Tech Dairy Judging Team know their cattle. In fall 2009, the team won the national championship at the 2009 World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., for the third time in four years.
Team members brought home a sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing that they were the best intercollegiate dairy judging team in the country. But more importantly, they gained valuable life skills that will help them as they continue on their journey beyond Virginia Tech.
Undergraduate students Paula Craun, a sophomore agricultural and applied economics major from Bridgewater, Va., Derek Heizer, a junior dairy science major from Middlebrook, Va., Hannah Smith, a senior dairy science major from Clear Spring, Md.. and Parker Welch, a junior dairy science major from Chestertown, Md., were selected for the dairy cattle judging team last spring after completing the dairy evaluation course and a rigorous spring workout. Workouts consist of traveling to farms where the team practices placing classes and giving oral reasons. Team members start practicing a week before fall classes begin, and workouts are held every weekend leading up to the contests. The team travels to dairy farms throughout Virginia and neighboring states; the closest practice is two-and-a-half hours away from Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg, Va., campus.
Coaches Michael Barnes, professor of dairy science, and Katharine Knowlton, associate professor of dairy science, both in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, instill a strong work ethic among their students. Practices are mandatory. Students know upfront that if they miss a practice, they will be removed from the team.
The team competes in two contests leading up to the World Dairy Expo. The Virginia Tech team placed fourth at the All-American Dairy Show in Harrisburg, Pa., and first at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Mass.
During a contest, each team member evaluates and ranks two classes each of six different breeds of dairy cattle (12 classes in total), takes notes, and then makes individual, formal oral presentations to officials on six of those classes to justify their placement decisions. Contestants have 15 minutes to rank each class of four animals from best to worst.
Barnes explained that dairy cattle are evaluated by judging how closely their body conformation approximates the “ideal conformation” purebred model established for the particular breed. The conformation evaluation considers correctness of udder, frame/body structure, feet and legs, mobility, and evidence of high milk production.
Although the ultimate goal is to be the best at evaluating dairy cattle, Barnes and Knowlton agree that it’s about much more.
“We teach decision-making,” Knowlton said. “There are not very many opportunities to learn how to make decisions. We teach our students how to assess a situation, collect information, how to prioritize, make a decision based on the information, and how to justify their decision.”
Knowlton pointed out that the process of judging a class of Holstein heifers is not much different from what a manager might do when administering a budget. “When you manage a budget you need to know your priorities. You often have to make tradeoffs. You are held accountable and need to defend your decision,” Knowlton said.
Judging also helps students become more self-confident. “They have a much better ability to stand on their own feet and justify a decision they have made in a logical and confident manner,” Barnes said. Students also learn how to accept criticism and learn from their mistakes.
“These skills are very portable and can be taken wherever they go,” Knowlton said.
Students have the opportunity to visit some premier dairy operations during their workouts and as they travel to contests. This allows students to network with industry leaders while being exposed to some of the best dairy cattle in the country.
Barnes said judging team alumni are highly sought after by employers and graduate schools. They are hugely successful and hold leadership positions within their chosen fields of work, including breed associations, dairy farm enterprises, genetics marketing organizations, financial institutions, public relations firms, college and universities, and veterinary practices, among others.
“The real value of participating on a judging team is the gains in problem analysis and solving skills, as well as the teamwork, self-discipline, and communication skills that students experience,” Barnes said. “These skills and characteristics are highly valued by virtually all employers and quickly enable these students to progress into leadership positions.”
For those less interested in dairy cattle, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences also sponsors livestock and horse judging teams. The programs are similar and the benefits are identical.
“Pretty cows are just the bait we use to teach students. It’s not until afterward that they realize what they’ve learned,” Knowlton said.
Students and coaches of the Virginia Tech dairy, livestock, and horse judging teams explain their craft and share their judging experiences.
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