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Irons in the fire: You be the judge

Paul Marchant Published on 31 August 2015

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to judge a lot of junior livestock shows at county fairs. I’m tempted to replace the word “opportunity” with the word “pleasure.” But while in the context of livestock judging the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, neither do they always fit happily hand in hand.

The opportunities are not always a pleasure. Regardless of the locale, opportunities abound where livestock and their people are on display.

However, it’s not really a pleasure to be the guy who makes the decision that causes a 9-year-old ponytailed girl to burst into tears as she coaxes her too-fat, too-narrow, sickle-hocked Yorkshire gilt out of the ring, white ribbon in hand.

It’s always a thrill to feel the tension and excitement as I meander up and down the row of steers in the championship drive, pausing at each steer to catch the eye of the anxious kid at the halter and to take one last look at every critter just to validate my decisions.

There’s nothing quite like slapping a grand champion. For just a fleeting second, all is right with the world. There is always the happy shriek from the mother, along with cheers and applause from the crowd.

No matter what, the decision is always the right one. But, no matter what, the decision is never right. Those are two guarantees. It’s always a happy experience to talk to the family of the kid with the champion. To them, I’m the sharpest guy in the three-county area.

It’s another matter entirely to explain to the grandfather of the kid with the eighth-place lamb in the fourth class of the intermediate division why his grandson’s Hamp cross wasn’t up in the third hole of that class.

Heck, most days I’m lucky to remember my middle name. But on show day, I’d better be at the top of my game. If you’re a judge, you need to remember just what you said and thought about every beast that crossed your line of vision that day. Or you dang sure should know how to fake it.

I’ve never been a very effective liar, and my memory isn’t really keen, so I’m often in a tough spot. But I do the best I can and try really hard to be charming.

People who usually can’t focus enough to remember to shut the gate out of the east 40 on most days suddenly turn into The Mentalist when their kid is in the show ring. Despite the fact that there may be 250 other kids showing that day, all they can see is their kid. And it doesn’t matter what words were spoken by Kim Jong Il or Winston Churchill on that particular day, the only thing they heard is what the judge at the county fair said about their kid and his or her calf.

I understand and feel their pain. Through 20 years, five kids and more than 100 show calves, I only saw a couple of judges get it close to right. Amazing, isn’t it?

You know what, though? That’s exactly as it should be. There’s really nothing wrong with a girl being the center of her parents’ universe for a day, or a 12-year-old boy knowing that his dad’s got his back in defending his position that he should have won his class. I’ll gladly take the heat for that (as long as I can leave town after the show), especially if it builds a little character in the process.

Whether I agree with a judge or not, my determination as to whether or not he or she is any good is always based on how well they can explain their decisions. That’s why, when I judge, I try to make it a point to talk to every kid and then explain over the microphone why I did what I did.

And it seems that most folks, regardless of what they think of my decisions, tend to temper their original thoughts about my good sense, or lack thereof, if I exhibit some accountability for my choices.

Therein lies the great lesson that I’ve learned as a livestock judge. We all have to make judgments every day. Sometimes it’s about little things of minor consequence. Sometimes our judgments may have lasting effects on our lives or the lives of those around us.

You can’t get away from making judgments. But, like it or not, eventually you’ll be held accountable for every judgment and decision you make. Just make sure that before you slap your hand on that champion or send that white-ribbon hog out of the ring, you have a darn good reason for it. If you do, you don’t have to look back.  FG