September 24, 2021 at 3:59 p.m.
Thanks to a group of volunteers, the morning of Sunday, Sept. 19 was no different, as college students descended upon the Vernon County Fair to take part in the Vernon County Dairy Cattle Judging Contest in Viroqua.
The contest, which is now in its 27th year, was in danger of not returning following its cancellation last year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Several obstacles, including issues with tabulating scores and results, loomed over the contest, nearly tolling its death knell.
“It is really important to us to have a contest in the Midwest, for our collegiate youth,” said Dr. Les Hansen, coach of the University of Minnesota judging team. “Some things are traditional and valuable, and they need to be maintained. Dairy cattle judging and a contest like this one are two of those things.”
Prior to the beginnings of the Vernon County Collegiate Dairy Judging Contest, which was previously known as the Accelerated Genetics Collegiate Dairy Judging Contest, there had been a contest held at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa, which was coming to an end.
“Larry Tande and Pam Hendel officiated that last contest in Waterloo, and thought it was a shame that it was ending,” said Dr. Ole Meland, a former Accelerated Genetics employee. “Larry had recently judged the Vernon County Fair and was impressed by the quality of cattle gathered for the show. He suggested it as a potential new contest location.”
Hendel, who was employed with Accelerated Genetics at the time, got the ball rolling and the company began hosting the event in Viroqua in 1994, with many employees taking roles in the development, planning and running of the contest.
“This contest has a history of being well-run,” said Janet Keller, another former employee of Accelerated Genetics. “It is a contest that has always been run by people who were involved in dairy judging throughout their own youth and throughout their careers.”
While resurrecting the contest seemed an insurmountable task for one person, it became more palatable with a team approach. Enter three past Accelerated Genetics employees, who had all been involved with running the contest in the past: Meland, Keller and Roger Hanson. Working as a group, the three were willing to undertake running the contest for its 27th year.
“Keeping the contest going was important to me because of the history,” Hanson said. “I am a long-time resident of Vernon County, and my kids were involved in 4-H here. This has become part of the fabric of our fair, and for it not to continue would have been a shame.”
With the three at the helm, other volunteers were recruited and the work began in earnest earlier this year.
“We have a great group of core volunteers and supporters, including the Vernon County fair board members,” Keller said. “Without any of these people, having this great contest back at the fair would not have happened.”
Through the use of Zoom meetings, plans began to be made for bringing the contest back to life. Working through the details to find a new method for tabulation of scores was the top priority for the committee.
“There is no way you can score a contest like this by hand,” Meland said. “Once we were able to work out a way to handle the scoring, then we felt we could do the rest.”
Out of the 10 classes presented, animals for 7.5 of the classes were already being exhibited at the fair. The remaining animals were brought in by area breeders, who not surprisingly, are also supporters of and involved with youth dairy cattle judging. The animals were led by youth from the Vernon and Monroe County dairy youth groups.
“The quality of the cattle that the breeders and exhibitors are able to provide for us is world-class,” Meland said. “That is one of the draws to this contest: these teams see breeds that they might not get a lot of exposure to in their areas.”
Meland recalled one year when two of the Milking Shorthorn heifers presented in a class went on to place first and second in their class at World Dairy Expo, and the impression that pair made on contest participants and coaches alike.
“Being located right here in Wisconsin, we are also able to gather a great variety of officials, with a great deal of both contest and real-life experience in dairy cattle evaluation,” Meland said.
Three colleges have been competing in Viroqua each year since the contest first started: the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University. This year, 14 teams from five states competed, from across the Midwest and as far away as Virginia Tech and California Polytechnical State University, representing both two and four year schools.
“The awesome thing about this contest is the tradition in Vernon County, with all the registered breeds. It is a beautiful arena and a fantastic facility at a church across the street for reasons and the banquet. And then there are the wonderful people who organize the event,” said Hansen, of the importance the contest plays in his school’s judging program. “Another great thing is this contest allows schools to bring more than one team.”
This year’s contest was topped by the University of Minnesota-Maroon, consisting of Matthew Gunst, of Harford, Wisconsin, the overall high individual, along with teammates Kendra Waldenberger, of Spring Grove, Minnesota; Jay Dicke, of Goodhue, Minnesota; and Zach Schilter, of Chehalis, Washington.
Winning the oral reasons portion of the contest was the University of Minnesota-Gold, led by Ashley Hagenow, of Poynette, Wisconsin, the high individual in reasons; along with her teammates Matthias Annexstad, of St. Peter, Minnesota; Kjersten Veiseth, of Zumbrota, Minnesota; and Leif Annexstad, of St. Peter, Minnesota.
The coaches for both teams were Alicia Thurk Hiebert, Eric Houdek, Gabriella Sorg Houdek and Hansen.
“The real reason to make this contest happen is the importance of dairy judging and the role it plays in building our young people,” Keller said. “Besides the dairy cattle evaluation factor, they develop so many life-long learning skills: self-confidence, critical thinking skills and public speaking skills. I know personally, if not for my involvement in collegiate dairy judging, I would probably not have spent my entire career working within the dairy industry.”
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