Skip to main navigation.

April 2020: Farm Byline

Thinking like a cattle judge

by Al Gustin


I was never an accomplished cattle judge. In fact, the first time I had to judge, formally, was in college. Unlike most of my classmates, I hadn’t had the benefit of years of 4-H or FFA livestock judging. Assessing a “class” of four steers or heifers, ranking them and then giving oral reasons to defend my placings was, for me, a daunting challenge.

I was in awe of my classmates, who would place the class, and then, from memory, would explain and defend their placings to the instructor. A student might say something like, “In my top pair of steers, I placed 1 over 2, because 1 is a thicker-made, larger-framed steer. He is wider through his chest floor and would appear to hang a carcass with more retail product than 2. I will grant that 2 is a trimmer steer, is more structurally correct and has a more functional set to his rear legs.”

Thinking about it now, it’s too bad cattle shows aren’t as popular as they once were. And it’s too bad more people don’t attend the shows that still exist – attend, and listen carefully to the judge.

At the state fair, for example, there might be a class of bred heifers. The cattle judge would assess them at length, based on a long list of quality factors, and then rank them from first to last. And as they paraded out of the show ring, he would explain his rankings, saying something like, “I’ll grant you that the heifer I placed third has more depth of body and more capacity, but she lacks the femininity and breed character of the heifer above her.”

What the student was saying to the instructor and what the state fair judge was saying to the audience is, “This is how I see it, based on the factors that are important to me, and I can defend my position. I acknowledge that someone else might see things differently, might rank the animals differently, and they might be able to defend their position, too.”

Isn’t that attitude a lot better than what seems so prevalent today – if I’m right, then you’re wrong? It’s my way or the highway!

The world would be a better place if more people thought like a good cattle judge.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.