The coveted brass ring of the County Fair is the color purple. A purple ribbon majestically adorned with a rosette is held in perpetuity by those who show it off with a sense of pride. But is it always meritoriously awarded, or is it often flawed by politics and other factors of distraction.


Yes, it’s county fair time — a time to reflect and re-evaluate our priorities and objectives.

The savory tastes, sights, and sounds of the County Fair are in the air. Colors of red, white, and blue will adorn the stalls of animals that are housed and cared for as though they were “king or queen for a day.” It’s a special time for the livestock as well as those who would at any other time and place call it chores.

The fair is an incredible place to educate and showcase the pride of our efforts. But all too often the message is missed.

For some reason the thrill of the Ferris Wheel, the mystique of the sleight of hand, the allure of a pronto-pup, and the misunderstood premiums, generated by the chant of the auctioneer — is accepted as a gratuity, never to be challenged for fear of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

The walk to the show ring and the parade of champions is for the intended purpose of showcasing what it takes to produce red meat. However, we fail if we do not challenge the outcome on the rail.

The very core of Knightro is that of recognizing value differences in livestock and establishing a market-pricing plan that identifies these differences in the form of value-based compensation. And, it has to start at the 4-H youth level at your local county fair.

I especially enjoy working with the 4-H youth, as this impacted my life in such a powerful way, back when I was a youngster growing up on a farm in western North Dakota. My involvement in 4-H indeed became my focus in life; so much so, that I can feel the emotions of these kids and relate to most every situation they face.

This is always driven home and reinforced when I speak to 4-H and FFA livestock groups. They not only remind me of how far we have missed the mark regarding defining the objective of raising livestock but that there is a real need for judges that can teach and relate to youngsters in a significant manner. A child should not leave the show-ring with only the options of either joy or disappointment. They need to leave with a sense of accomplishment and pride, a learning experience and enjoy the highs of a newfound level of self-worth and confidence.

Livestock judging is due for a big overhaul. The current method of judging does not meet the criteria of teaching and learning for which it was intended. This is so apparent when you get out in the real world and witness the lack of education among livestock producers.

County fairs have served as a showcase for agriculture for many years. But, more importantly, they have been a window of opportunity for a real educational experience. The 4-H kids especially could gain lots of knowledge and expertise, unlike that from other events that take place in their formative years.

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 outstanding ones available, but it does suggest that the present system of judging is antiquated and needs to be fixed.

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 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 following 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 only 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 cutability 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 the final judgment.

The final placing should be presented at a follow-up meeting in an educational format that allows for plenty of discussions. To prepare for such a session, there should be photos taken of the live animals, showing front, side, and rear views. These pictures 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 year-long vested venture. Doesn’t this kind of a commitment cry out for more than just a ten-minute walk through a show ring, and listening to a canned set of reasons the judge has given for a zillion classes in the past? Doesn’t your child deserve more?

There is nothing more special on the face of this earth than our kids, 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?