Judging Livestock

For as long as humans have domesticated animals in order to produce meat, livestock judging has been a critical skill. Butchers – and later, commercial meat packers – had to be able to judge how much meat they could cut out of an animal just by looking at a live animal. Breeders responsible for producing the next generation had to judge how well males would pass on desirable traits and how well females would produce and care for their offspring. Those responsible for raising the animals and feeding them to the point of slaughter had to judge how well the young animals would convert the food that was available into useful meat.

In the 50s and 60s, livestock judging became much more scientific. Also, the standards judges were looking for changed dramatically in response to both consumer and industry demands.

By the 50s, livestock judging was big business. A “Grand Champion” bull or boar or ram or stallion could command top dollar to impregnate females of his species. The progeny of highly judged females would also command top dollar.

To provide a venue for this business, states, cities and commercial enterprises organized what have become elaborate fairs and exhibitions. In 1841, the New York legislature appropriated $8,000 to promote “agriculture and household manufacturers in the State.” Other states followed. A central event at each has been the exhibition and judging of the best agricultural products and livestock.

In 1896, the town of Fort Worth, Texas, was trying to lure one of the Big Four meatpacking companies of the day to locate next to their struggling livestock market. So, the market, the railroads that used Fort Worth as a hub, and key ranchers from the surrounding territory came together to produce the Fort Worth Stock Show, the first event dedicated to livestock exhibition and judging alone. Now, it’s a three-week extravaganza with a rodeo, shopping, educational events and over 22,000 animals to be judged, including cattle, horses, hogs, sheep, goats, poultry, donkeys, mules, rabbits and llamas.

In the early days, the stock show winners received saddles, boots, hats and other premiums. Later they got cash prizes as well as the advertising value for their animals. But the early organizers recognized that one of the main values of the exhibition was to allow cattle breeders from all over to talk to each other and look at the best of the breeds.

What constituted “best of the breeds” changed dramatically during the 50s and 60s. As we’ve seen, consumer preferences in meat were changing into response to health research. That changed what qualities livestock judges were looking for.

In a 1947 Livestock Judging Handbook, for instance, counseled that judges should downgrade a hog if it “Lacks finish. Not fat enough.”

“Finish” meant the hog had a firm and ample layer of fat under its skin and especially across a highly rounded back. Judges did not want to see rippling muscles. Instead, in 1947, “a fairly high finish is essential to the production of firm, high quality pork chops” with a good deal of marbling.

Hogs in general were heavier than they are today and carried more fat. In fact, there was a specific class of market hogs known as “lard-type barrows.” (Barrows are castrated male pigs.) These were hogs specifically sold to produce lard in the days before the popularity of vegetable oils for cooking.

In 1992, the fifth edition of Livestock Judging, Selection and Evaluation, by Roger E. Hunsley, outlined how the ideal hog had changed through the decades –

  • In the 1940s and early 50s, the ideal hog was “short, deep, chuffy, excessively fat.”
  • In the late 1950s, the ideal was a “long, narrow, rather meatless hog… This hog was light-muscled and did not grow and attain a high degree of efficiency so essential to the swine industry.”
  • In the 1960s and 70s, packers pushed growers to supply them with “moderately long, thick, muscular, trim, heavy-boned” hogs that weighed around 220 pounds. Toward the end of this period, producers began using confinement facilities and that changed the ideal again.
  • In the late 70s and 80s, the ideal became the “deep, loose-structured, high-performing, confinement-adaptable hog.” The ideal weight went up to 240 pounds as producers wanted animals that could quickly convert feed into meat.
  • In the 1990s, consumers asserted themselves again, and the ideal became “the ultra-lean, heavy-muscled, wide-bodied, fast-growing, sound-structured, efficient market hog.” The ideal market weight went up again to 250 pounds or more.

There have been similar changes in the ideal types of animals being judged in cattle and sheep competitions during this time, as well.

From the 1920s on, government meat standards have been important measures of the quality of meat, particularly with beef. U.S. Prime Grade beef was as good as it gets. During the 60s, supermarkets were looking for ways to attract consumers to their meat counters, and they found that the “Choice” stamp of approval would draw customers in.

Terry Schrick InterviewBut even these standards evolved as consumer tastes changed. The amount of marbling allowed in a “Choice” graded steak was reduced during the 1960s and the other grades were realigned, as well.

Terry Schrick has seen these changes first hand because he has been a livestock judge and trained judges for his whole career. “You learn to look at that animal live,” he says, “and then visualize what it’s going to be when we have a carcass.”

For all of the changes, judging of live animals by external appearance is still an inexact science, at best. In the 1960s, researchers began to use ultrasound equipment to peer inside the animals to see how much fat and how much meat they had under the skin.

Around that same time, judging organizations began organizing carcass competitions to evaluate the actual meat products of the slaughtered animal. Sometimes, these results were correlated with the live judging results to develop more accurate procedures for live judging. In other words, carcass competitions could suggest what judges should look for to produce the best meat for the least amount of inputs. That is the livestock grower’s bottom line.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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