Swine Judging Contests Provide More Than Meets the Eye

Despite the wintery weather, the judging contest during Iowa Pork Congress drew in 64 senior teams and five junior teams. ( Ernie Barnes )

No two pigs are alike and young swine enthusiasts had the opportunity to show off their ability to determine those differences during the Iowa Pork Congress Youth Swine Judging Contest last Thursday in Des Moines.

The Bellevue FFA 1 team took home the top senior team honors and each member received a $750 scholarship. Team members include Nick Deppe, Brooklynn Moore, Jeb Schwager and Wade Schwager. The team is coached by Steve Schroeder. The top junior team was Benton County Jr. 1 and coached by Robert Hanson.

This was the eleventh year for this youth event designed to help young people learn more about judging hogs while earning valuable college scholarships and exploring the educational opportunities available to them during the Iowa Pork Congress. Despite the wintery weather, the contest drew in 64 senior teams and five junior teams.

“This event started out in the basement of the Iowa Events Center and quickly outgrew the space in its second year and moved to the Iowa State Fairgrounds,” says Ernie Barnes, director of producer and industry services at the National Pork Board. “The contest was set up to provide young people the opportunity to evaluate commercially raised pigs and rank a keep-cull class as well as an evaluation of 10 animals. We also wanted to showcase career opportunities.”

Barnes volunteers his time to help announce events like this because he enjoys giving back to livestock programs because they helped him get to where he is today in his career. Barnes judged livestock at Mississippi State University and has coached 10 4-H or FFA teams over the years, with five of those teams capturing state championships.

“I feel it’s important to be a part of events like this and it encourages young people to stay in agriculture,” he says. “But even if they don’t, they can still promote agriculture regardless of which career path they choose.”

A.J. Lewis of Lewis Genetics runs a 100-sow operation and farms with his family near Center Point, Iowa. Lewis grew up participating on 4-H and FFA livestock judging teams. He then went on to judge livestock at Iowa State University and now judges swine shows throughout the country.

“There’s no doubt that participating in swine judging contests as a kid fueled my interest for wanting to breed better pigs,” Lewis says. “It’s a fact that there are differences between pigs and that there are certain traits I believe are more important than others. It’s interesting to see how pigs express those characteristics differently. Being able to see those differences have helped me find success as a hog breeder today.”

Lewis credits the skills he learned in judging contests to helping him evaluate differences between pigs in his own operation today.

“I continually challenge myself to evaluate pigs so thoroughly and look for things that I maybe didn’t see at first sight, just like I did 25 years ago when participating in youth judging contests,” he says.

In addition to stockmanship and evaluation skills, Lewis says livestock judging taught him important life lessons that still help him today when faced with making a big decision.

“I’ve learned not to be overwhelmed with what’s in front of me,” Lewis says. “Take a break, analyze and things will begin to make more sense.”

Learning how to prioritize a balance of traits has been a key asset in Nick Berry’s job as president/CEO of Swine Genetics International, an artificial insemination swine genetics company based in Cambridge, Iowa, focusing on liquid and frozen boar semen sales.

“Livestock judging taught me how to verbalize what my eyes are telling me,” says Berry, a former 4-H and FFA judge and member of the 2000 Iowa State University livestock judging team. “Taking that a step further, I think that same skill set today helps me to identify our customers' unmet needs and then prioritize where we can have the biggest impact in helping them answer questions or solve problems that have a big economic impact on their business."

Barnes agrees and added that the relationships he has developed through livestock judging contests over the years may be the best part of events like the Iowa Pork Congress Youth Swine Judging Contest.

“There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t interact with someone that has been a part of these judging activities,” Barnes says. “It gives us a bond that you just can’t get anywhere else.”

Those bonds have helped Berry find his place in the swine industry, too. In addition to leading one of the largest boar studs in the U.S., Berry also judges swine shows around the country.

“The leaders in the swine industry and all of the participants in all phases of production comprise a relatively small community of people so developing relationships at contests fueled my interest as much as anything,” Berry says.

With fewer small farms than ever before, Berry believes the livestock judging platform can help build and develop tomorrow’s leaders in the swine industry.

“These educational events provide a great learning tool to help inspire competitiveness and prioritization for younger people who will become the future movers and shakers for animal agriculture,” he says.