Steer competitions allow many young people the opportunity to learn a range of responsibilities and gain skills and knowledge that can be used in their future careers and in their broader lives.
Preparing a steer requires knowledge of selection, nutrition and a commitment to ensure the steer grows according to a specific end point. For young people there is the responsibility of not only feeding and caring for the animal, its also about the preparation and training.
So what brings success in a steer ring? As a judge I have some pretty clear expectations for steers. The things I consider are important not just for the show ring. I am looking for the traits that are economically and commercially relevant. Through judging I hope that people preparing steers, learn to use that experience in their approach to commercial operations, and so produce more economically valuable animals for themselves and for the clients they hope to attract.
Whenever I consider a class of steers, my first thoughts are about the class specifications. Specifications for weight and fatness are essential! The processor for various reasons sets a weight. These range from;
• ensuring that the primal cuts that the carcass will be broken down into are the correct size for further fabrication into retail cuts
• efficiency of processing within a plant
• ease of processing. For example a local butcher has smaller lighter bodies both for retail purposes and for the simple reason that there isn’t enough room in a small chiller for a larger carcass!
If a steer is too heavy or too light for class specifications, I automatically discount it as a place winner. In the commercial world this discounting happens with a lower price offer from the purchaser.
There are some important lessons to consider beyond the obvious discounting for price (or points in a competition). If your steers are too heavy then they should have been entered into a different class. Or in commercial operations sold to a heavier market.
My second consideration for class specifications is for the specifications for fatness. Again there are fat depths set for a reason. These include the minimum required for MSA grading (3mm on the rib) as well as to ensure an evenly covered carcass. Over fat cattle create more issues with excessive trim.
The lesson to consider is that if you are preparing steers, for competition or for the market, know your specifications! If you are failing to meet the specs, does this mean you need to consider:
• Feeding program – are you growing at the optimum daily rate for your target? If it is too slow will you fall below the minimum? Too fast and will you overshoot?
• Fatness – Consider not just your feeding but also your animals maturity patter. Is your maturity pattern correct for your target market / class specifications? Later maturity animals lay fat down later, so will you be able to meet the requirements with your maturity pattern. Similarly are you not being too ambitious with early maturity patterns?
Once I’ve considered the suitability of the steers to their class specifications, I assess each steer for its overall muscle volume. Muscle is directly related to saleable red meat, and so the more an animal has, the more saleable red meat is available and so the value of that animal increases.
I assess muscle volume using the industry accepted muscle scores. I find it useful to think about volume in the same way it is calculated for any shape. Essentially it means to consider length, depth and width.
So I look at the length of the animal. I consider its width, through the loins and rib eye, and the width of stance and through the hindquarters. Lastly I look to see how deep is the muscle volume extending from the hindquarters down to the stifle. I like to see broader, rounder, longer steers.
My final consideration is to look at the overall fatness of the steer. It’s one thing to meet specifications. However it’s another to be evenly covered across the carcass. I look and feel over the major primals and over the carcass to see if the fat appears to be evenly distributed. Sometimes you can feel the fat coverage is uneven or hasn’t quite extended across the major areas.
As a carcass judge I’ve seen many bodies that are unevenly finished. This adds to the processors level of trim and overall reduces the value of the carcass to the processor. So its something I do try and consider and provide feedback on.
Essentially I use these three key areas to judge steers. Ultimately the steers that meet specification, display the high degree of muscle and even distribution of fatness are the ones I will select to be my place winners.
I don’t spend any time worrying about what the herd is like that produced these steers. I don’t worry about the heifers in the herd or anything outside of the ring. As a judge I can only assess what I see in front of me. Just as a buyer will only consider what is in front of them at the sale and if they will suit the processors needs. Focusing on these things does provide breeders with the information they need to fine-tune their program at home.
And for young people making their way into the industry, the lesson of knowing the market specifications, choosing cattle that suit their market and selecting for yield are lessons that will take them a long way into commercial and show ring success.
Junior judging competitions are one of the most important activities for agriculture. These competitions are often the entry point for many people into their chosen agricultural industry. It doesn't matter if that industry is cattle, sheep, poultry or alpaca! For me, junior judging was the start of my career in agriculture and so its one form of competition I'm always very eager to support.
I reckon its important to recognise junior judging competitions offer more than simply a format to demonstrate your ability to judge and place animals or entries.
These competitions are a fantastic way to refine your ability to make decisions, to demonstrate your capacity to present arguments or a reason behind a decision and give you a great way to improve your confidence as a public speaker. These are all skills that are highly valuable in your career, even if you don't go on to do a lot of judging in the future.
When I do have the opportunity to judge the junior judging competitions, I try to spend some time providing competitors with some ideas and suggestions to bear in mind in future competitions.
Over the next few months there are a huge number of junior judging competitions coming up, and I thought it might be a good time to share a few tips with potential junior judges.
Tip 1: Practice speaking into a microphone at home! Holding a microphone seems to distract many people. Combined with the nervousness that is already associated with public speaking this seems to really derail some peoples presentations. So practice speaking into a microphone, holding it close to your mouth and get comfortable with the concept of holding and moving while speaking.
Tip 2: Learn to describe the exhibit. As a judge you are being assessed on your ability to describe the exhibit, and the traits you think are important. Don't make stuff up! Don't use jargon, particularly if you don't really understand it. Its much more professional to speak and describe an exhibit with correct terms.
Tip 3: Make a proper comparison. Judging is not simply placing exhibits in a ranking order. Judges need to be able to describe what they are looking for and why their choices are placed in the ranking the judge has chosen. Part of that is to compare exhibits. You must be able to say why 1st place is the best. And you have to say why the 2nd place is there.
Don't skip over the comparison between the entries. I reckon the worst form of comparison is to describe an entry as being "overpowered on the day!" Ask yourself, what does that mean? If the entry was underweight, less well grown, less muscled, poorly structured, what ever the reason for it being more lowly raked, it should be said, and not hidden in this meaningless phrase!
Tip 4: Dress Appropriately! Judging is an honour. Its not everyday that you will be asked to make a comment on peoples hard work in breeding, preparing and exhibiting.
To respect the effort exhibitors put in, you need to present yourself as a professional. Your appearance indicates you care, and it illustrates you want to convey opinions which are considered and helpful.
Dressing correctly conveys your intention to be taken seriously and respectfully. Its hard to take seriously the opinions of someone who can't be bothered to wear clean clothes, or even to wear their clothes neatly. If they don't care about their appearance, do they care about their opinions and comments?
So make sure you wear good clean pants (not jeans); a clean ironed shirt and for men a tie. You should wear a clean jacket. If you're at school there's nothing wrong with the school blazer. If you are wearing a hat, which is mainly for cattle and horse judging, it should be a wide brim and clean hat! The black yard hat covered in mud and dung looks terrible!
Tip 5: Make your decisions & use your time to get reasons
As a member of the Australian Intercollegiate Meat Judging Team we spent several weeks training before the US competitions. One of the lessons I was taught was to make your decision swiftly.
Generally as a judge you know pretty quickly which order you will place a class. So make that preliminary decision and spend your time on why - that is what are the reasons behind that placing order.
If you do this it may help you be certain you've got the order correct. It will also help you be much more confident in your preparation to answer questions or to present your reasons to the judge of the competition.
Tip 6: Enjoy yourself! Junior judging is a great opportunity. Don't put yourself under so much pressure that it becomes a chore or something you don't enjoy.
Judging is a skill. Like any skill it has to be developed. The more you practice the more confident you will be. look for the opportunities, listen to the feedback, think about the things you would like to do better and practice those things.
The Final Tip: Look for opportunities!
If you want to develop as a judge, or you'd like to be more involved in judging in your industry, junior judging competitions can only take you so far. If you are keen, get involved in your local show society and get to know how shows operate.
Make contacts with the judges in your industry. Perhaps there are opportunities to be an associate judge where you can learn and refine your skills. Don't overlook the opportunities to learn new skills, particularly by attending industry youth activities. Its always a work in progress, but all judges started somewhere and if you keep at it, you will find your place in the industry of your choice.
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