Dr. Michael Barnes Dairy Judging Team
Competition helps students become better decision-makers
There is no doubt that students on the Virginia Tech Dairy Judging Team know their cattle. The Virginia Tech Judging Team has brought home five National Championships since 2006! The Judging Team instills valuable life skills that help team members as they continue on their journey beyond Virginia Tech. And it’s fun!
After completing the dairy evaluation course and a rigorous spring workout, the team members are selected each year. Workouts consist of traveling to farms where the team practices placing classes and giving oral reasons. Team members start practicing a week before fall classes begin, and workouts are held every weekend leading up to the contests. The team travels to dairy farms throughout Virginia and neighboring states; the closest practice is two-and-a-half hours away from Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg, Va., campus.
Coach Katharine Knowlton, The Colonel Horace E. Alphin Professor of Dairy Science, and assistant coach, Joseph Real, instill a strong work ethic among their students.
Practices are mandatory. Students know upfront that if they miss a practice, they will be removed from the team. During a contest, each team member evaluates and ranks two classes each of six different breeds of dairy cattle (12 classes in total), takes notes, and then makes individual, formal oral presentations to officials on six of those classes to justify their placement decisions. Contestants have 15 minutes to rank each class of four animals from best to worst.
Dairy cattle are evaluated by judging how closely their body conformation approximates the “ideal conformation” purebred model established for the particular breed. The conformation evaluation considers correctness of udder, frame/body structure, feet and legs, mobility, and evidence of high milk production.
Although the ultimate goal is to be the best at evaluating dairy cattle, it’s about much more.
“We teach decision-making,” Knowlton said. “There are not very many opportunities to learn how to make decisions. We teach our students how to assess a situation, collect information, how to prioritize, make a decision based on the information, and how to justify their decision.”
Knowlton pointed out that the process of judging a class of Holstein heifers is not much different from what a manager might do when administering a budget. “When you manage a budget you need to know your priorities. You often have to make tradeoffs. You are held accountable and need to defend your decision,” Knowlton said.
Judging also helps students become more self-confident. They have a much better ability to stand on their own feet and justify a decision they have made in a logical and confident manner. Students also learn how to accept criticism and learn from their mistakes.
“These skills are very portable and can be taken wherever they go,” Knowlton said.
Students have the opportunity to visit some premier dairy operations during their workouts and as they travel to contests. This allows students to network with industry leaders while being exposed to some of the best dairy cattle in the country.
Judging team alumni are highly sought after by employers and graduate schools. They are hugely successful and hold leadership positions within their chosen fields of work, including breed associations, dairy farm enterprises, genetics marketing organizations, financial institutions, public relations firms, college and universities, and veterinary practices, among others.
According to former long-time judging coach, Dr. Michael Barnes, “The real value of participating on a judging team is the gains in problem analysis and solving skills, as well as the teamwork, self-discipline, and communication skills that students experience. These skills and characteristics are highly valued by virtually all employers and quickly enable these students to progress into leadership positions.”
For those less interested in dairy cattle, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences also sponsors livestock and horse judging teams. The programs are similar and the benefits are identical.
“Pretty cows are just the bait we use to teach students. It’s not until afterward that they realize what they’ve learned,” Knowlton said.
National Champions: 2022, 2013, 2009, 2008, 2006!
"Dairy judging teaches important professional skills. The cows are just the bait to attract students to learn these skills."
--Dr. Katharine Knowlton
Ask any past participate of a youth dairy judging contest and they're likely to tell you, the contest offers valuable life lessons while creating memories.