Three national championships in three days; an almost unheard of feat, but one pulled off recently by students and coaches with Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences.
November proved to be a lot like Christmas come early for the OSU Horse Judging, Meat Judging and Livestock Judging teams, even if the “gifts” of a national title were all earned by a year of uncompromising commitment and effort.
“This was the first time OSU has won all three national championships in the same year, and to the best we can tell, no university has managed that feat since 1987,” said Clint Rusk, who has served as department head since the summer of 2012. “Our judging teams are no strangers to winning national championships, but this year truly was something a bit extra special.”
The OSU Horse Judging Team – coached by Steven Cooper, associate professor and director of the department’s equine teaching and research program; Marissa Chapa, graduate assistant coach; and Mattie Lemmons, undergraduate assistant coach – actually entered two competing squads in the 2018 American Quarter Horse World Show. One won national championship honors as best in the land, while the other finished third overall, a substantial achievement in its own right.
“One of the more difficult aspects of horse judging is that students are judging not only the animal conformation classes but also animal performance classes that have their own specific scoring and penalty systems,” Cooper said.
OSU’s Rachel Scott, an animal science junior from Georgetown, Texas, garnered High Individual Overall honors during the national championship competition, fulfilling a lifelong dream. The daughter of a nurse and banker, Scott cannot remember a time when she was not interested in horses.
“My parents actually rented me my first horse, as we lived in the suburbs,” she said. “Our coaches and team camaraderie are two primary reasons why I think OSU Horse Judging teams have been so strong over the years. We pick each other up. The hours are long and filled with hard work, but it’s a lot of fun.”
A lot of fun and lot of success. The OSU Horse Judging Team has earned national champion honors in three of the last four years. Obvious bragging rights for any Cowboys fan, but still not the actual focus of Cooper, his assistant coaches or the department.
Student development is job one
“We tell prospective students to come to OSU for the curriculum and what we can do to help them reach their career aspirations,” Cooper said. “We emphasize our judging teams are a way to help them further develop skills and knowledge beyond the classroom, that they can put to use after they graduate. Our department can boast of having national champion judging teams throughout the decades, but it’s still about each individual student.”
Cooper added the most frequent questions he gets from potential employers inquiring about a specific student typically are the same: Is he or she dependable? Is he or she a hard worker? Does the student work well with others? “Being part of a competitive collegiate-level judging team promotes the development of those desirable traits,” he said.
OSU Meat Judging Team Coach Gretchen Mafi agrees, explaining the toughest challenge relative to competitive judging may be the mental pressure with which team members must contend.
“We teach the required knowledge and help team members improve their skills in applying that knowledge, but to do so on demand and under the pressure of a timed competition is on them,” she said. “We simulate the pressure during practice, but practice is not the game, as the saying goes. Think about a person’s personal and professional life after college. The ability to succeed under pressure is a life skill valuable to absolutely everyone.”
2018 marked the 19th time the OSU Meat Judging Team has won national championship honors, including three of past five years. Team members are quick to give all due credit to Mafi, a 13-year OSU faculty member and holder of the Ralph and Leila Boulware Endowed Chair in Meat Science, though their coach and teacher puts the credit right back onto the students.
“Dr. Mafi has a pretty good competitive streak, and we all kind of feed off that,” said Morgan Pfeiffer, a graduate student in the department and assistant coach of the team.
Like Cooper, Mafi pointed out meat judging is chock full of lifelong proficiencies applicable to everyone, from time management and organizational skills to an aptitude for critical thinking and the ability to communicate ideas and concepts clearly and concisely, all wrapped around a strong consumer and food industry focus.
“Not everyone knows there are 29 lean cuts of beef or the difference between Choice and Select grades, even though people come across the terms all the time in the meat counter,” Mafi said. “I can guarantee you that our meat judgers know all that, and a whole lot more.”
Setting the bar high
P.D. Miller, an OSU animal science senior from Torrington, Wyoming, who earned High Individual Overall honors while helping the OSU Livestock Judging Team earn national champion honors at the North American International competition, started early, deciding to judge “every major steer, heifer and hog show in the nation when I was 7-years-old.”
Aiming high has always been one of his hallmarks, and the trait paid off big in 2018: The national championship competition marked the fifth time this year that Miller earned High Individual Overall honors at a collegiate livestock judging contest.
“When they called my name as High Individual Overall during the first contest in Denver, I was thinking, ‘How are you going to top this?’” he said. “As the streak grew, I realized that you can’t concentrate on winning so much as keeping things in perspective and just putting forth your best effort. Nobody will win all the time, but putting forth maximum effort will keep you in the ballgame, so to speak, and that applies to more than livestock competitions.”
Miller did not have to look far for inspiration when things got tough this year. Teammates Haley Stark and Anna Grace Parnell received All-American Awards for 2018. Blake Bloomberg, OSU Livestock Judging Team head coach since 2013 and holder of the OSU Robert Totusek Endowed Chair in Animal Science, was named 2018 Coach of the Year by the National Collegiate Coaches Association, the fifth year in a row he has been so honored. Graduate student Kyndal Reitzenstein served as 2018 assistant coach.
Rusk believes a major reason why the department’s judging teams have done so well is because the head coaches are faculty members who also excel as teachers and researchers, who bring a wealth of knowledge about the animal and food sciences to every endeavor.
“Excellence in the classroom and beyond the classroom is something all of our judging team coaches stress, personifying what is a core value of our department,” Rusk said. “You don’t necessarily have to be the best, but you should always strive to do your best.”
The OSU Department of Animal and Food Sciences is part of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, as well as the university’s two state agencies: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and the statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.