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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Although livestock events are popular in the Cornhusker state, Nebraska also has hundreds of youth participating in dairy-related activities throughout the state.

Four youths recently earned their way to the Southern National 4-H Dairy Judging Contest at the North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE) Competition.

It was the first year for a Nebraska 4-H Dairy Judging Team to compete at NAILE. The contest was challenging, with some 4-H teams represented by freshmen in college. After securing their spots on the team with wins at the state contest during the Nebraska State Fair, Chase Racicky of Mason City, Natalie Wegner of Wolbach, Hannah Holtmeier of Plymouth, and Sheridan Chaney of Elwood began training for the big show. The teammates judged classes online and then practiced together at Rayme and Kristen Mackinson’s Wood River Dairy in Miller, Nebraska.

“This was a great workout, allowing kids to view cattle, develop their terminology and really hone their reasons,” team coach Lee Chaney pointed out. “Greg Racicky, Becky and I listened to two sets of oral reasons and I’m always impressed with how the kids have improved.”

Although Nebraska is known as the “beef state,” it has a rich history in the dairy industry with hopes of expanding.

“It is encouraging to see young people capitalize on opportunities presented to them,” Chaney added. “And to have them honor those opportunities by improving their skills through persistent practice and hard work is really wonderful to see.”

At NAILE, the Nebraska judging team faced competition from 21 other teams. They had 10 classes to evaluate — five cow and five heifer — followed by four sets of memorized oral reasons.

At the end of the day, their hard work had paid off. Nebraska placed sixth in the Guernsey breed and 11th in the Ayrshire breed, the best a Nebraska team has done at a national dairy judging contest in four years. Sheridan Chaney placed sixth in Guernsey, 15th in oral reasons and 27th overall. Hannah placed 32nd in Guernsey and 47th in Brown Swiss, and Chase placed 40th in Ayrshire.

The teens, who all hail from farm and ranch families and have been judging dairy for numerous years, agreed that participating in the national competition honed their skills for a future in the ag industry.

“All the reasons and practice classes online helped me and I feel happy that I saw improvement in not only my judging skills, but giving reasons,” Holtmeier said. “I think dairy judging teaches me how to have an open mind about my opinions, because I don’t come from a dairy background so I know I’m not always going to be right, so I have learned to keep an open mind.”

During their stay in Louisville, the team members also had the opportunity to meet the superintendent of officials for the national judging contest, James Umphrey, of Florida. Umphrey, who grew up on a row crop farm and raised cattle and hogs, has been in his volunteer role at NAILE for 23 years.

A former Extension educator and currently an ABS Global eastern states milk quality specialist, Umphrey said the NAILE judging program sets youth apart, giving them a real advantage in their future ag careers.

“When I interview kids face-to-face for a job, I guarantee you I know within five minutes if that kid ever had any quality judging experience,” Umphrey explained. “The biggest thing they possess is the ability to evaluate a situation and defend that situation quickly.”

He added that NAILE is considered the preliminary contest that prepares youth for competition at the bigger arenas, like the National 4-H Dairy Judging contest in Madison, Wisconsin, the All-American Youth Dairy Judging Contest in Harrisburg, Penn., and the World Dairy Expo, also in Madison.

NAILE contest coordinator George Heersche noted that while the competition is geared toward dairy judging, it benefits youth for careers beyond agriculture, as well.

“Dairy judging is just the carrot,” Heersche said. “What we are improving is skills, teaching life skills — skills of observation, simultaneously evaluating multiple inputs, logical thinking, and oral communication, — young people can use these life skills in whatever career they end up in.”

To that end, Heersche said NAILE is always open to all youth, regardless of whether they have a farm or ranch background.

“For the past seven years, the Kentucky FFA has won the National FFA Dairy Evaluation Career Development event with mostly non-dairy and non-farm kids,” he noted. “It can be done with hard work.”

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