There is only one real judge; unfortunately, there are those amongst us that think that means them. Herein lies the problem associated with many livestock judging experiences. Instead of selecting the right animal to head the class, the championship becomes more about politics and popularity than it does about merit.

Having judged at some of the most prestigious livestock shows in the country and a lot of county fairs, I can assure you that I’ve never walked out of the show ring knowing for certain that I had picked the champion. How is it then that hearts are broken and fortunes are made or lost on just such decisions.

The answer may lie more in the self-serving agenda of the judge than it does in the integrity of the show. The heart and soul of the exhibitor, especially those young 4-H kids, is often ignored at the expense of integrity. Is this the lesson we want learned in a competitive livestock show?

To further compound the judging experience, consider the life changing mistakes that have undermined the entire livestock industry. The wounds of these misguided decisions may never heal and in some cases have caused major setbacks in breed development. It’s time for change!

So what’s wrong with the way it is? Livestock judging is an art and a skill of subjectivity, so subjective that there isn’t even total agreement among the so-called experts. This is not to say that we don’t have competent judges, because there are many very good ones available. It does suggest that the present system of judging is antiquated and needs to be fixed.

For a 4-H kid, the show ring can be a daunting experience. From fear to disappointment, the emotions can become raw and frayed. This is where the judge can play a pivotal role in the show ring experience.
To have a young boy or girl enter the show ring with high expectations, and return with only one of jubilation or one of total rejection is totally destructive to the whole learning experience.

For the many kids that participate, most will leave with a feeling of nothingness. For those adults that support the system, they will say it is a good experience of life to be exposed to the real world of winning and losing. To those, my response is one of total empathy for their kids.
Competition in the livestock judging ring can’t be compared with that of a sporting event or a style show. It’s not about speed or endurance — not even about ability or beauty. It’s about the bottom line of agriculture to go forth from this educational experience with the skills and the tools to make a living producing livestock on a profitable basis.
What has to be done to fix it? First we acknowledge that there are differences – differences brought about by feeding and selection. An explanation of good, sound feeding practices and a demonstration of selection factors would be good for starters. You then begin to group the entries in accordance to the explanation and demonstration that you have just given.

In reality, you have just conducted a mini evaluation clinic, so that the kids know and understand what is happening. Your job as a judge is to educate these youngsters, not simply stand out there in the middle of the ring, as though you were a God that could see right through these animals. You have a pretty good idea what is under the hide or else you wouldn’t be judging. But it’s not a science, and there’s no real proof until the carcass is hanging on the rail and cut ability and quality are evaluated.

No livestock market class should be complete or finalized until the data of a cut ability test is available to the judge. Even then there will be some close calls that will require you to regress back to the show ring before making final judgment.

The final placing should be presented at a follow-up meeting in an educational format that allows for plenty of discussion. To prepare for such a session there should be photos taken of the live animals, showing front, side, and rear views. These photos should be presented in conjunction with the carcass data, with a full set of understandable, objective reasons. This is where objectivity comes into the show ring. Because of the many sideline differing opinions, it’s where we bring full closure to the judgmental decision making, for both the parents and their kids. Isn’t this the least we should expect from a 4-H project that required so much time, energy, and investment?

For some this project may have started with the selection of the dam and sire, making it a once in a youthful lifetime decision, or at least a yearlong vested venture. Doesn’t this kind of a commitment cry out for more than just a ten minute walk through a show ring, listening to a canned set of reasons the judge has given for a jillion classes in the past? Doesn’t your child deserve more?

There is nothing more special on the face of this earth than our children, and isn’t it our responsibility to guide and educate them in their decision making? Their road map to the future may have nothing to do with livestock, but aren’t we obligated to build them a strong foundation from which they can make sound choices?

Before you hire your next judge, check out credentials. Is he or she qualified, or is this a political appointment of convenience? Or, worse yet, didn’t you really care who it was, as long as you had all of the judging positions filled prior to fair time? I’ve witnessed some cases where I’m convinced that the only requirement was that of being a live body. In other cases, cost was the only determining factor. The selection of livestock judges is one of the most important management decisions of any county fair. For the sake of the future of the livestock industry — make it a good one!

I hope I have gotten your attention, as I’m convinced that this is a serious omission of concern by many county fairs. County fairs have a serious obligation to the public for whom they serve, and to the cause for which they are dedicated. Our forefathers meant for it to be more than just a few days of pleasure and entertainment. It was meant to be a yearly revitalization of rural America for which we could showcase with pride, to all of America, our accomplishments.

The livestock industry is currently in such a flux of disarray that we seem to be moving without direction. My challenge to the county fairs is to help bring the industry back into the focus for which it was intended — producing a product that is acceptable and in demand by the consuming public.

My challenge to fellow livestock judges: Please make this a year of renewed commitment to a cause far greater than that of ourselves.
I’ll see you in the livestock arena!

(insightful stories written by Ken Knight)


Ken E. Knight is the author of the “Knightro Report”, a nationally syndicated livestock-marketing column, which is featured in this publication on a regular basis. Mr. Knight is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a major BS Degree in Meat and Animal Science and a minor in Communications. In addition to being a professional auctioneer, public speaker and livestock judge, he brings many years of corporate level meat and livestock market management and expertise to the industry for which he now serves as an independent voice of shared knowledge and experience.


For more in-depth information regarding the topics that have been touched upon in this report, Knightro conducts livestock marketing seminars on a regular basis. To schedule a seminar, auction, judging, or speaking engagement, please contact Ken Knight, Knightro, W11911 County Road FF,  River  Falls,  WI 54022,  phone  toll free 1-877-KNIGTRO, phone 715-262-8480,  fax 715-262-8480, e-mail [email protected]t; or contact the Midwest Farm & Livestock Directory at [email protected].