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Our Illinois 4-H Story

Livestock judging helps youth gain skills for a lifetime

youth participating in a livestock judging contest

“I’ve got 23 members going today,” was the text message I woke up to just the other day. It was from one of my volunteer livestock judging coaches and he was referring to the first livestock judging contest of the season for our 4-H members. That contest fell on a Friday, a Friday when school was in session, and yet the parents of 23 4-H members had agreed to let their children miss a day of school and travel to Springfield to compete in a livestock judging contest. The parents were on board because they have seen the skills their children have been developing since starting judging practices. These are skills that can’t be taught in during a day in school. They are a combination unique to those who participate in livestock judging.

Livestock judging is an experience where 4-H members evaluate a class of four animals and place them based how they compare to the ideal animal. Sometimes, they may be given some background data on the animal to help inform their decisions while other times the only information is the animal in front of them. In doing this, 4-H members are gaining critical thinking skills that will benefit them for a lifetime. Not only are they considering the data and information in front of them, but they are also making considerations about how these animals will perform in the future. In a world where a common criticism the newest generation entering the workforce is their perceived inability to think for themselves, our members participating in Livestock Judging are already setting themselves up to be sorted at the top of the class.

After considering the information in front of them, 4-H members place the animals in the class. When marking their judging card with the placings they have selected, members are making a decision that they can stand behind. Consider the last decision you make in the workplace. Did you second guess yourself? Did someone else question the choice to made? Being comfortable and confident in one’s ability to make a decision is a gift that every 4-H member and young person should be given.

Participants in 4-H livestock judging aren’t finished after marking their card with their placings. They are then asked to recall the details they took in during the previous phase of the contest and either answer questions related to animals judged or defend their placings in a short oral speech. The skills that 4-H members develop to be able to accomplish this part of the contest truly set them apart from other young people their age. An eight-year-old who can recall which of the 12 pigs they looked at that day was the most maternally built or which steer was the most heavily muscled is a sight to behold. A 14-year-old who can stand in front several experts in the field and using the correct terminology state their placings and reasoning all while keeping their nerves and anxiety hidden under the veil of professionalism deserves our admiration and respect.

When a 4-H member misses a day of school to go to a livestock judging contest, they are fine tuning skills that no classroom can every teach them. The ability to think critically about the data and information in front of them is the same ability that will help that 4-H member consider the consequences of pursing one career path over another. The decision-making skills will pay off tenfold when that 4-H member has entered the workforce as an EMT and each second taken to make a decision is the difference between life and death. When that same member is in the board room or in a court room, their ability to recall details and articulate their thoughts will be the envy of their peers. These skills and many more are why 23 4-H members missed school to go to the opening Livestock Judging Contest of the season. Why our volunteer coaches continue to give up a night every week and at least one day of their weekend from late February to June. And why a text that wakes me up in the morning that letting me know that we have more members attending a contest than I can county on my fingers and toes combined will always be a welcome one.

About the Author: Shelby Carlson is a 4-H Youth Development Educator serving Henderson, Knox, McDonough, and Warren Counties. Carlson joined University of Illinois Extension in 2018. Teaming with local 4-H program coordinators and volunteers, she plans, conducts, and evaluates programs that are consistent with the needs of local youth. Carlson provides programming related to college and career readiness, leadership, social and emotional learning, and more in addition to her work with 4-H clubs.