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Livestock judging in 4-H leads to good things at the U of M and beyond

Q and A with Emily Annexstad

There aren’t many activities in which one judge is judging another judge, especially when one of those judges might only be in sixth grade. Many young people enjoy livestock judging from their time in University of Minnesota Extension’s 4-H youth program all the way through their college years.

Emily Annexstad and 4-H presenter with her cow and a big check at Minnesota State Fair
Emily Annexstad (left), U of M student, in her 4-H days. Donor gifts help fund awards, such as those Emily used for livestock judging trips.

Learning how to evaluate and rank animals and then defend those rankings in a two-minute presentation called “oral reasons” has led a University of Minnesota dairy judging team to wins at one major competition five years in a row.

At the collegiate dairy cattle judging contest in Louisville, Ky., last fall Emily Annexstad, a senior from St. Peter, Minn., placed first overall, first in oral reasons, and first in judging Holstein dairy cows. Her team placed first overall and in oral reasons. Read about it in CFANS news

The Minnesota 4-H dairy team, including Annexstad’s younger brothers Matthias and Leif, competed and won first place there among those in 12th grade and younger. Hoards Dairyman reported on the siblings' wins.

Emily, an animal science and agricultural communications and marketing major, answered questions about her life as a dairy judging competitor.

Before you judged cows, you showed them in 4-H, right?

Emily Annexstad 2005 at young age with her red and white cow and an adult
Emily in 2005, showing "Sunny," her first cow, in 4-H at the Nicollet County Fair

My first animal I showed as a 4-H Cloverbud* was a red and white calf named Sunny. She was so young that we had to bring milk for her to the county fair. I was about six, and when you are small, the animals you show are small too.

*Cloverbuds are 4-H’ers in grades k-2.

What other projects did you do in 4-H?

I had veterinary science projects, but also foods, photography, fine arts and more. I worked on knitting projects with my aunt and sewing projects with my grandma. I did livestock presentations too.

What does livestock judging look like?

I compete in dairy judging. After the cows are led out and lined up, head to tail, you score them. You have a scorecard with four categories, including udder, feet and legs, frame, and dairy strength. But you also look at the cow as a whole.

Once you have class placings, you give “reasons” for your placing. At the competition in Louisville, I judged 10 classes of cows, then gave reasons for five classes after a lunch break and about 20 minutes to prepare. You walk in the room when the person before you comes out. The judge gives you two minutes to give your reasons and might also ask you questions, like which cow had the best feet and legs.

The highest score is 50, but you don’t know your score right away. We don’t find out our scores until after the awards banquet.

So you judge the cows…and then judges judge how you judged the cows?

Yes! The judges have grown up doing this, too, but the ways we judge livestock change and they have to keep current.

Would you like to be on the other side of the table someday and judge livestock judging?

I would enjoy helping coach 4-H dairy judging teams in the future. Giving back to activities such as dairy judging that helped me develop lifelong skills is important to me. I am looking forward to helping the sophomores and juniors with their reasons at the University of Minnesota this spring!

A livestock judging coach named Jack Morris said that, in 1944, his own first judging practice didn’t go very well, but his coach told him, ‘Son, you just stick with this judging thing because some good things will come out of it for you.’

What has come out of it for you?

I relate to that! I remember being absolutely terrified when I heard the older kids practice. I wondered how they could remember all that with only 20 minutes to prepare. But my parents encouraged me to try.

What’s come out of it for me is being able to make the best decisions I can make in the amount of time I have.

In oral reasons, I have only 2 minutes. I have learned that it’s still okay to pause if I panic. It’s important to be correct because how you lose points is by saying something that is incorrect. My delivery is pretty strong, but making decisions takes practice. Sometimes reasons are subjective, so there are things you have to weigh when figuring out how to answer.

I have also met so many amazing people.

What do you like about working as a team?

In 4-H, when I got old enough to drive, my parents could stay home and do the chores on the farm while my brothers and I went to do chores on the fairgrounds during the county fair. We made a system, had roles and helped our other friends with their chores. 

It’s like that with livestock judging, too—we learn our own strengths and encourage each other.

Why did you apply to the University of Minnesota?

It was when I was on a trip to Madison, Wis., for the 4-H National Dairy Conference in 11th grade. It was so fun to travel with the other Minnesota 4-H’ers attending. We took two 15 passenger vans and there were kids who were a year older than me, and they were going to go to the U of M. I felt like I wanted to continue to be a part of this group, knowing they could do dairy judging at the U of M. My parents are also alumni.

I am grateful for the support I received through the Minnesota 4-H dairy showcase program. I used some of the money I received from the showcase toward dairy judging practice trips during my college years.

So, it all started in 4-H, and I was fortunate to be able to continue doing what I like to do at the U.

In 2017, you became Princess Kay of the Milky Way, a Minnesota State Fair tradition sponsored by the Midwest Dairy Association. Did you ever think that would happen?

Emily Annexstad dairy princess
Emily was Princess Kay of the Milky Way in 2017.

I remember being at the Minnesota State Fair with my mom and seeing all of the heads sculpted in butter in the dairy barn. My mom said, “One day you could get your head sculpted in butter.” Realizing that I had the strengths, talents, and that I cared about dairy farms made me want to represent dairy. It became my goal.

Being a Princess Kay gave you opportunities to travel around the state to talk to people about dairy farming. What did you say?

I always ask people first if they have any questions, or what they would like to know. I also like to find out if we have any shared values or hobbies we both enjoy. It’s important to see each other as people first. Then I answer their questions, and I always want to share the message that farmers genuinely care about the land and our animals.

I also explain that agriculture doesn’t look the same as how my grandparents—or maybe their grandparents—did it. We use new science and technology now to take care of our cows.

Of course, I also like to talk about dairy, like all of the new products they might like to try such as new types of yogurt!

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