What are Texas Tech’s world-class judging teams actually judging and how do they get judged themselves? We’re here to find out.
Welcome back to the Mailbag!
Earlier this week we sent out a release about our world-famous judging teams and another set of outstanding performances at the National Western Stock Show (NWSS) in Denver.
Now, most Red Raiders will know that when it comes to meat judging we here at Texas Tech University have a blue-ribbon, gold-standard, prime-cut, best-in-show, build-another-trophy-case program. What you might not know is that our wool judging and livestock judging teams have made a habit of wrecking the competition as well.
And if you've ever visited the Animal and Food Science building, you'd know that our judging teams are, in fact, some of our most impressive banner bearers.
You also may not know exactly what those teams do – we're not really sure we do – so we thought this week's Mailbag could focus on what goes into judging meat, wool and livestock.
As usual, we reached out to the experts to get an explainer, and here's what we got back.
Livestock judging takes on a few forms. At the NWSS they have a unique competition called “Carload” – which, of course, Texas Tech won – where the team is required to judge a pen of cattle.
Livestock can also be judged individually and judges are looking for several things, but the term used by Livestock Judging Team coach Skyler Scotten was “completeness.”
Basically, prior to the competition, the official judges – those judging the student judges – set the official rankings for each class of animals. What team members are looking to do is match as closely as possible the ranking the official judges gave to the livestock in what is known as the “placing” category.
Sheep, goats, pigs and cattle are all part of livestock judging. How the livestock are placed depends on their body structure, size, strength, movement, cleanliness, etc. The animals with the fewest issues get the highest ratings.
For the Carload Competition, livestock are brought out to be judged in groups, giving students a look at another real-world situation when buying livestock in bulk. So instead of four animals being judged individually, the team is looking at four pens of animals and rating the pen for quality and consistency. So, for instance, a pen with two high-quality sheep and two very low-quality sheep would receive a lower rating than a pen with four decent sheep.
“My dad used to go to the stockyards to unload train cars and they price them by the pen, so the Carload Contest is about as good of a real-world test as we have,” Scotten explained. “We're judging them on a pen basis rather than on the individual price, like we would in a feedlot.”
On top of grading the livestock, team members have to stand in front of the judges and orally defend their placing to the official judges in a competition category called “reasons.”
Scores from each category are compiled for individuals and teams, and the overall competition winner is the team with the highest combined score from every category.
Judging meat is a complicated thing but it helps us as consumers to figure out which cut of steak, ham or chop is the best, so we're all for it.
It also works in a similar way to livestock judging, but with “rail” and “specifications” categories added to give two more areas of scoring.
Now, we got pretty deep into the weeds learning about this, but what it all comes down to is students on the team are judging 10 classes of meat, ranging from whole sides of lamb, half sides of beef and pork, and primal cuts, down to individual cuts such as ribs and hams.
“We're assessing for the highest quality and the highest yielding products,” Meat Judging coach Shae Lynn Sarchet explained. “For beef, we're looking at not only the highest dollar value – what's going to essentially grade the best – but we're also looking at the yield. With pork and lamb we're only dealing with yield. We want trim, very heavy-muscled animals.”
Interestingly, the meat judging competition has its “reasons” category in writing, giving competitors a learning experience in putting their thoughts down on paper and turning it in for an examination.
The “rail” category is an eye test, where 15 head of beef animals are put out and competitors are tasked with giving it a quality grade and a yield grade by sight, similar to traditional methods once used by U.S. Department of Agriculture graders in the industry.
Finally, the specifications division requires students to analyze 10 cuts of meat to identify defects deemed “unacceptable” by real-world standards.
It's a lot to take in, but to give you some perspective, a meat judging competition takes a full day.
“We actually have to take a break for lunch because it takes so much time,” Sarchet said. “We do five classes in the morning with the quality grading and specifications, do reasons, eat lunch, do five other classes and then yield grading.”
Ever wonder why your wool blankets are so warm and comfy and your fleece jacket is so soft? It's because somebody got judgy with a sheep, and our students here at Texas Tech are really good at it.
The concept is similar to the other two competitions, but instead of looking at production for food products, these students are looking at wool production for other products.
“We have six classes, a grading rail made up of 15 fleeces and then we give three sets of oral reasons on three of the six classes,” Wool Judging coach Kade Miller explained.
The six classes are usually split into three commercial classes and three breeding classes. Weight is a big part of the process and heavier is better, but from there the judging of wool gets pretty complicated to an outsider.
Much like meat judging, yield and quality of the product are central to the grading process. With wool, that means how much of the overall weight will be left once the sample is cleaned up and ready for production. Other factors like how wavy, long or fine the fibers are also is taken into account.
For the breeding side of the competition, students make the switch to looking at favorable traits for breeding wool animals.
“We're looking at color, crimp and condition of that fleece,” Miller said. “We're looking for the heritable traits that are going to be passed down to a future flock.”
Again, totals are compiled and winners are chosen, and more often than not there's a team of Red Raiders at the top.
Now that you understand how the competitions work (at least as well as we do), you're likely to be wondering how Texas Tech has been so dominant for so long.
Well, we stumbled on the answer for that, too.
“A lot of these students, whether they're transfer students, or out-of-state students or even if they grew up right here in West Texas, these competitive teams are not just their teammates, they're not just their friends, they're their family,” Sarchet said. “They're the ones in each other's weddings, at the baby showers and at their parents' funerals. Unfortunately, when I was on the judging team, I lost my mom, and that judging team was my family.
“And so being able to be a part of a program that I get to give back to and show that to these students – that it's not about winning; it's about us as a team growing in our faith, in our professionalism and coming out bigger and better as great people – is second to none.”
Far be it for us to judge, but that bit of camaraderie, combined with instructors, coaches and staff members who genuinely care about their students' futures, seems like a fine way to keep the banners flying for many years to come.
“Our success in this department is not necessarily evaluated on how we finish in a contest, but what our students are doing five years after,” Scotten said. “That's the biggest thing that I tell my recruits when they come in.
“I'm not really caught up in where they place in the livestock judging contest. I'm more worried about the impact that they make five years down the road and the tools that they learned while they were here that they utilize in the real world – things that they can apply to their jobs and families.”
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