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Dairy Judging (Part 1 of 2)

Dairy Judging (4-H) and Evaluation (FFA) competitions are contests where youth examine classes of four cows or heifers, rank them in order of best conformation to least, and then present a two-minute set of oral reasons defending their decision. These contests are invaluable to the development of young people. They teach students to identify problems, evaluate solutions, identify the best solution, and make decisions. Giving reasons teaches students how to logically, concisely, and confidently explain their decision-making process. Having these skills also gives an edge to those 4-H and FFA’ers when picking out their project animals. The dairy judging subject will be divided into two posts. One goes over the actual placings of the animals, while the following article will cover oral reasons.

The first step for anyone judging dairy cattle is learning the parts of the cow (image below and link). Next is learning what the ideal cow looks like. The Purebred Dairy Score Card (PDCA) is the nationally recognized, official way an ideal cow should be put together (image below and link). It breaks the cow’s conformation into four major categories and by percentages/points ranks how much to weigh the characteristics of each category.

The categories are frame worth 15 points; dairy strength, 25 points; rear feet and legs, 20 points; and udder, 40 points. Frame, minus the rear feet and legs, are the skeletal parts of the cow. Dairy strength is a combination of her angularity and strength such as width of chest and openness of rib. Rear feet and legs judgment is based on her bone structure and how she moves. Finally, the udder is given the most consideration, including things like udder depth, rear and fore udder, udder cleft, and so on. Taken together, a cow's conformational traits lead to a cow that has a long and productive life. Breed characteristics are also on the PDCA scorecard. For more in-depth explanations, Hoard's Dairyman has videos available for dairy strength, rear feet and legs, and udder.

The Holstein Foundation has a thorough dairy judging guide that is an excellent reference for students and coaches alike. It gives another way to view the category breakdowns in order of priority and describes what each characteristic should look like (images below). The University of Kentucky offers a page with images comparing incorrect and correct conformation here.

Heifers can’t be forgotten. Without the udder category, the breakdowns are frame, 25 points; dairy strength, 40 points; and rear feet and legs, 35 points. It takes a little while to get used to judging heifers. For more in-depth video explanations, Hoard’s has three videos about heifers (part A, part B, and part C). The PDCA heifer card is below and a link here.

Once an ideal cow and heifer is understood, it's time to evaluate the class. For a first impression, view the class from a distance of 25 feet before moving in for a closer look. Classes often follow a pattern where there is a readily identifiable top cow, with a more logical cow for fourth place. Placing the middle pair is left and choosing the cow most like the first is a good step in making this decision. Alternatively, you may find that it is a two-pair class, where the two top cows look similar to each other as does the bottom pair.

Take notes to help you decide on and remember the cows for giving your sets of reasons. Below is an example image of how to set up your note-taking. For more in-depth note-taking training visit here and here. Be considerate of other contestants and keep an eye on your time. Double-check your scorecard before turning it in, and try not to second-guess yourself at the last minute.

Dairy judging is a skill best improved through practice, practice, practice. In addition to coaches putting together live classes of cows and heifers to judge, there is the Hoard’s Dairyman Judging Contest each year (link). You may enter the annual contest online, and to view and practice on past classes, visit here. It has classes, results, and reasons from 2010 – 2022. There are also Hoard’s Dairyman practice videos here. There are approximately three full practice classes per breed. Videos have a silent option and a reasons option, so that coaches can place and explain classes as they wish. Next time, reasons!

Dairy Judging Notes Taking Page
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