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Judging by experience

The associate professor of animal science and livestock judging coach at Northeastern Junior College (NJC) in Sterling, Colo., – the man behind all of these awards – is Ben Cooley. After starting his teaching career at NJC in the fall of 2006 he has just completed his fifth year on the job. Cooley went to NJC to obtain his associate degree then went to Colorado State University (CSU) in Ft. Collins to earn both his bachelors in animal science and masters degree in agricultural education.

While a student at CSU Cooley lived in FarmHouse Fraternity. “It was a great decision on my part,” Cooley said. “I learned valuable lessons, grew up and met a great bunch of guys with whom I am still friends today. Learning to build relationships with the men around you, learning to be part of an organization when you are an adult, how to evaluate what is best for the house, the organization and your brothers, all were great life lessons. It was good and I don’t regret a minute of it. I would encourage men going to CSU to look into living at FarmHouse.”

Cooley grew up in the 4-H program in Colorado. He showed pigs, sheep, cattle every year that he was active. “I got to experience a lot of different things in 4-H and I served in leadership positions, club president, district and county councils. I went on the Citizenship Washington Focus trip as well as the county exchange trip to Georgia for a week. Those opportunities prepared me greatly for my current job.”

The NJC livestock judging team trains to compete in judging four main species: cattle, sheep, hogs and goats. As the fastest growing meat industry in America, goats are a newer class. They are also the fastest growing livestock project on the 4-H level.

“I did livestock judging in 4-H for several years but really became proficient in college. I was on a very competitive team at NJC and at CSU. The team I was on in 2002 was the reserve national champion. The great experience was to be in the top 10 of many contests on that team,” said Cooley. “We had great teammates, that’s for sure.”

The Northeastern Junior College livestock judging team travels about 30,000 miles per year. Contests include the fall semester lineup of the National Barrow Show in Austin, Minn., the American Royal in Kansas City, Mo., North American International Livestock Exposition, at Louisville, Ky., and the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo., in January. The spring semester takes the team to major judging events in Texas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio and Houston. An interesting situation is that at Houston everyone gets to judge, whether they are on the team or not. The team drives to all contests in a 15-passenger van with a luggage trailer behind.

“The way the judging team works at NJC is that the freshmen judge at seven or eight smaller, preparatory contests around Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. These contests allow the students to get an idea of the work and life on the road required. The students practice every weekend and several days during the week. During their four week winter vacation, at least three of it is spent on the road and at judging contests. The freshmen travel quite a bit but it’s not as intense and they don’t miss as much school as the sophomore group. There are usually a dozen students on the freshmen team and about eight come back as sophomores. It is the sophomore group that travels to the big contests. They only get one year of eligibility at a junior college level for the big contests and that is why we hold them until they have more experience and maturity,” said Cooley. “Then at the university level they have an additional year of eligibility for the national contests. Many students who are highly competitive follow this model which gives them two shots at national contests. Our first big, national contest is in Kansas City in the fall. The students then have one calendar year to judge under that year’s eligibility. For the university level, the first contest of the calendar year is the National Western Stock Show and their national championship is at Louisville in the fall. At CSU, the ‘senior’ team starts judging in the spring semester of their junior year through the fall semester of their senior year.”

At the smaller preparatory contests, all students who attend can judge. The big national contests allow for one team made up of five members and those five have to be named by the coach. All team members travel, and Cooley chooses who will judge at that specific contest. A competition generally starts at 7 a.m., and continues about 12 hours before the final critique is done. Judging contestants cannot talk amongst themselves nor to others during the contest. A contest consists of 12 classes of livestock and eight sets of oral reasons in a day. The majority of classes, five to six, are cattle classes, a couple of goat classes with pigs and sheep rounding out the dozen. Within those divisions, there are classes of market stock and breeding stock. Judging team members have to be well rounded in their judging expertise.

During summers when he is not in class, Cooley gets the opportunity to judge county, state and regional fairs around the country. Among places he has judged are California, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado. A favorite, extraordinary opportunity was when he was called to Alaska for the Tanana Valley State Fair at Fairbanks. Cooley judged the entire fair beginning with the practical species of cattle, sheep and pigs. He also was called on to judge the first ever class of market reindeer in America. It was a new project that the people up there had been working on.

To prepare for judging this unique class, Cooley spent an afternoon at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, looking at a herd of reindeer that the university and Native Americans Alaskans had developed. “I worked with the professor, asked a lot of questions as they taught me what reindeer were like. About half way through I asked, what are the standards for judging market reindeer? Their response was, we hoped you’d tell us as it is the first time such a class has been judged,” said Cooley. “Reindeer have more subcutaneous fat than cattle, actually more like a pig, so you could tell right away the difference in the muscle and the fat. But for a market class we wanted them finished. I judged them at about 15 months of age when they weighed only 200 to 300 pounds, yet they were considered market animals. Reindeer are generally harvested at 2-years-of-age, so these were younger, yet they were market ready for their age.”

Cooley teaches several sections of the basic animal science courses along with the livestock practicum course, a lab component of the animal science classes teaching students with hands-on activities. He teaches livestock judging courses, the carcass class and farm animal anatomy and physiology, a challenging course for students that helps develop the young animal science minds for the university courses.

“Judging is done every day of our lives as we decide what to wear or do, what kind of car to buy, whether or not it is the right time to purchase a home – each time we evaluate and make a decision, we are judging. Livestock judges simply concentrate on a segment of their knowledge as they compete,” said Cooley.


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