Are You Smarter than a Livestock Kid?

Hundreds of North Carolina youth gather in Raleigh for three contests. These competitions test their knowledge of all things livestock. They practice. They study. They bring their game face. There’s nothing quite like it, and so many come back year after year to compete. Trust me. I was one of them several years ago.

Here is a glimpse into each of these livestock competitions:

Skillathon—A contest of knowledge, identification, and evaluation

Tables are lined in rows. On each table is spread items waiting to be identified. There are four categories—feed, meat, breeds, and equipment.

Youth are assigned groups are directed to stand by a table, back to it. Time is called, and pencils begin to mark score sheets. They cannot touch, but you may find them sniffing a feed item or two. It sounds simple enough, but it is really quite a challenge. Let me explain:

Breed identification—when it comes to identifying breeds, it is not enough to rely on visuals, you must also know breed origin and special characteristics. How else will you be able to tell the difference in the many black breeds of cattle or the many white, wooly sheep? For fun, here are a few easy questions these youth know:            

Q: What breed of cattle was developed at the King Ranch in Texas? A: Santa Gertrudis

Q: What breed of sheep was developed at NCSU? A: Polled Dorset

Q: How do you tell the difference between a Yorkshire and a Landrace? A: Yorkshires have upright ears and Landraces have floppy ears.

Youth study hundreds of cattle, goat, sheep, and pig breeds for this contest. Many make flashcards and binders filled with breeds photos and facts. I filled a 2-inch purple binder full of breeds and facts. Sometimes, I still like to look back at it and quiz myself.

Meat identification—picture going to the meat counter at the grocery store. Not a single piece of meat has a label. Would you be able to identify the cut correctly? Is it pork, beef, or lamb? Oh, and porkchop is not an answer. You have to specify if it is a butterfly, loin, rib, or some other chop. For many of us, there is no telling what we’d bring home if there were no labels. These youth, though, they go to the grocery store, and cover up meat labels to practice.

Feed identification—there on the table are a dozen feeds. Youth must identify feed stuff like corn, oats, wheat, rye, barley, (have you ever tried to figure out the difference in those four grains?) buckwheat, cotton, and much more. They also must know the difference in crimped corn, rolled corn, cracked corn, and whole corn. There may also be minerals and other feed stuffs on the table to be identified too (e.g. cobalt, salt, urea, and limestone). That doesn’t even scratch the surface either. Seniors may also be required to identify if it is used for energy, protein, fiber, or something else as well.

Equipment identification—OB chains, ear taggers, hoof trimmers, dehorners, syringes, combs, brushes…if it is used in livestock, it could be on the table, and youth have to know exactly what it is without picking it up.

Are you impressed with what they have to know yet? There’s a lot, and the contest isn’t over. That was just identification. Youth must also compete in evaluation. Youth may have to judge hay, meats, or wool. They may have to answer quality assurance questions. Then, they have to take a written test and if a member of a team, do a team problem. Skillathon is no joke. It is intense, detailed, and vast.

Remember that show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Well, are you smarter than a Skillathon contestant?

Livestock Judging—a contest of evaluation and reasoning

Pens of goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs are scattered throughout the barn. Each pen contains four animals. With less than 15 minutes, youth must analyze the animals, take notes, and mark their placing. In those few minutes, they are looking for structural correctness (how well an animal is put together), breeding potential, and how muscular they are. Not only this, but there are certain classes designated as question or reasons classes.

Question classes are all about observation, analyzing, and memory. For these classes, contestants make sure to take extra good notes. They have a few minutes to study the notes, and then it’s notes down. They are asked questions like:

  • Between goat 2 and 4, which was the deepest bodied and stoutest made?
  • Which hog was a gilt (girl pig)?

For reasons classes, extra notes are important too. It isn’t enough to just turn in a card with your placing. You must also defend your reasonings for placing the class that way. That’s right. You have to give a speech to a judge about the why you did what you did. Oh, and you really shouldn’t use notes. Depending on age, youth must give 2-4 sets of reasons. It’s tough, but it builds confidence, speaking skills, and critical thinking.

Public speaking is one of the top fears in America, and yet these youth are doing it. That’s more than many adults can say.

Quiz Bowl—a contest of knowledge and quick reflexes

Four against four. Buzzers in hand. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is at the edge of their seats. Questions, answers, and points fly. It’s Quiz Bowl at it’s finest.

Similar to Jeopardy, Quiz Bowl focuses on all things livestock. Questions range from breeds to diseases to nutrition to food safety. The topics are broad. The questions are varied. The stakes are high. It requires a lot of studying beforehand. Here’s a taste of questions:

Q: What is the desired finish weight of a large framed gilt and barrow?          A:240-280 lbs

Q:What does EPD stand for? A: Expected Progeny Differences

Q: Name the four compartments of a ruminant’s stomach A: Rumen, Reticulum, Omasum, Abomasum

 It isn’t good enough to just know the material. You must also have fast reflexes. Pressing the buzzer quickly is a sport within itself. Sometimes it’s the difference in losing and winning.

Those are the contests. Many participants compete in more than one contest. They prepare all year long, by studying and visiting feed mills, farms, and meat counters to practice. For some, their goal is not to just do well at the state contest, but to be able to try-out for the national team. Try-outs are currently taking place. The national contest will take place in November in Kentucky for Skillathon and Livestock Judging and Nebraska for Quiz Bowl.

These kids work so hard to prepare for these contests. There’s nothing quite like these contests, and there’s nothing quite like these kids.

About Marisa Linton See

Marisa grew up showing and raising livestock in NC. She has shown animals at the N.C. State Fair for 15 years and is a past youth livestock scholarship recipient. She is an N.C. State University graduate, agricultural photographer and blogger.

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