More than 3,600 students from across Minnesota attended the 88th Minnesota FFA Convention April 23-25 at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Of the thousands of students competing in proficiencies, career development events (CDEs) and earning state degrees, four individuals left the convention with high honors in dairy-related competitions. Emily Benrud, Dillon Gratz, Nathan Popp and Isabella Portner all claimed first place in their categories of competition and will travel to Indianapolis, Ind., in October 2017 for the national convention. Benrud, Goodhue team takes gold in Dairy Cattle Evaluation Judging dairy cattle has been a passion of Benrud's for many years, so it came as no surprise when she chose to compete in the Dairy Cattle Evaluation CDE this year. "I've been judging for several years through 4-H," Benrud said. "I'll actually be traveling to Europe this summer because our 4-H team won the national competition." The experience Benrud has gained in the youth organization aided her in success at the state convention as she was named first individual in Dairy Cattle Evaulation. Benrud is the daughter of Roger and Michelle Benrud of Goodhue, Minn. Together, the family milks 100 cows on their organic dairy. "Growing up on a dairy farm has been very beneficial," Benrud said. "I'm always around the cows and, in terms of judging, I can easily spot a good cow versus a not-so-good cow." In preparing for the state convention, Benrud and her teammates - Jay Dicke, Bradyn Hinsch and Kjersten Veiseth - spent this past year reviewing DHIA records and traveling across Goodhue County judging cattle. However, claiming top honors did not come without its challenges. During the state competition, Benrud was adamant on submitting perfect scores and responses to the DHIA questionnaire. Once the official placings were released, Benrud only dropped eight points. With state convention complete and a trip to Europe on the horizon, Benrud is even more focused on perfecting her dairy cattle judging skills, and will do so throughout the summer in preparation for the national FFA contest. "This has been a great experience, and I've met so many people," Benrud said. I'm grateful for this opportunity and looking forward to competing again in Indianapolis." Persistency takes Gratz to national Dairy Production Placement contest For four years, Gratz has developed his Dairy Production Placement Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) by refining the details of responsibilities on his family's 65-cow dairy near Atwater, Minn. With closer recordkeeping, becoming more involved on the farm and showcasing the skills he has learned working alongside his family, Gratz received top honors for his proficiency application. "I was really excited when the winners were announced. I've been working on this for four years," said Gratz, the son of Brad and JoAnn Gratz. The high school senior first started his proficiency application to showcase the work he does on the dairy, including caring for the calves and cows, vaccinating the animals, monitoring herd health and other daily tasks. "My first year, I just wanted to get a feel for it," Gratz said. "In the years that followed, I kept doing better and received tips from my advisor on how to continue improving." Gratz's proficiency application at the state competition highlighted his time management skills - balancing school, family and farming, as well as attainable goals for himself and the dairy. "It's really fun to look through the application and see how I've grown over the years," Gratz said. In preparing for the national competition in October, Gratz will further refine his application and touch up on his interviewing skills. "FFA has taught me a lot, and I want to continue learning," Gratz said. "Through this honor, I'm gaining more confidence in my skills and am personally growing and understanding my potential." Gratz also placed second in the Forage Production proficiency, earned his state degree and was a finalist for Star Production Placement at this year's convention. Experience on dairy prepares Popp for CDE Growing up on his parents' - Larry and Renee's - 50-cow dairy, Popp has more than 10 years of experience prepping animals for dairy cattle shows. It was from that experience he was able to compete in the Dairy Handler CDE at the state convention and receive first place. "Coming in first was a great honor," Popp said. "I was shocked when I heard the results, and really didn't believe it." Popp competed against 33 other individuals, and was judged on his appearance in show whites, maintaining control of the animal and following show ring rules. Students were required to use animals from the University of Minnesota. "That was the hardest part - not being familiar with the cows," Popp said. "You learn to adapt to their personalities and learn as you go." Popp credits his show ring success to working with animals on his own farm and following in the footsteps of his father, who also showed cattle. In the months ahead, Popp will show throughout the region and prepare for the national FFA competition. "My goal is to work with animals this summer more and more, and be ready for nationals," Popp said. "I'll also have to look over the new set of show ring rules that were just released." Through his experience in this CDE and FFA, Popp is eager to take what he has learned and apply it to his daily life, with the goal of creating a career in the dairy industry. Portner's SAE shows recordkeeping of own cattle A small herd of registered Brown Swiss has made a big impact in Portner's life - from learning responsibility and management skills to most recently being named the top recipient of the Dairy Production Entrepreneurship. Portner resides in Sleepy Eye, Minn., on her parents' - Tom and Mary's - 250-cow dairy. On the farm, Portner owns 23 cattle, of which she built her proficiency application from. "I've been working to keep records of all the finances and happenings of cattle, so I have a clear vision of how my herd is doing to influence future choices I make," Portner said. In managing her own herd, Portner has experienced the triumphs and tribulations of dairy farming. However, with the help of her family, these times have been noted as valuable learning experiences. "My family farm helped me set up the foundation of this project and assisted me in my decisions, as well as helping me keep my herd going through the rougher times it has seen," Portner said. After seeing her dedication and hard work pay off in the SAE, Portner still relishes in the award and is looking forward to competing for a place in the top four at the national competition. "It's exciting and nerve-racking at the same time," Portner said. "Through this whole proficiency, I have increased my herd's efficiency and productivity, as well as making this experience unbeatable."