Fall is here with the cooler night temperatures, the mellow gloaming light of September evenings and later sunrises for morning chores. This time of year always makes me feel nostalgic for my fall University of Minnesota dairy judging team experience.
    The judging trip practices were some of the best memories of college days for me. There was something magical about traveling with the other like-minded team members to elite farms in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin to judge classes of animals from their herds that were their pride and joy. They told us about their farms and specifics about their cattle. The rounds of team member introductions at every stop often included lots of laughs.
    Memories also included the special high-fat milk straight from the tank at a Guernsey farm, homemade doughnuts at another stop and all of the team bonding travel time from farm to farm. Giving sets of oral reasons were the important part of every evening after a full day of judging classes. The feeling of relief when the last set for the night was given.
    Judging teams and contests remain a special activity for many 4-H, FFA and collegiate teams. The teams are practicing and preparing for the national contests all across dairyland. Teams will travel to contests at the National Collegiate Dairy Cattle Judging Contest at World Dairy Expo, in Madison, Wis., the All-American Dairy Show, in Harrisburg, Penn., the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky. and the Accelerated Genetics Contest in Viroqua, Wis.
    The 4-H and FFA teams, as well as the collegiate teams, have likely worked hard all summer to get to the contests. Their coaches have arranged practices, listened to many sets of reasons and have taken teams to contests held at county fairs to get ready for competition at state contests. The team members are making memories of their own, and along the way they are learning life skills.
    The coaches, assistant coaches, host farms, contest volunteers and organizers all have many other options of how to spend their time in the summer. They have families, demanding jobs, cows to milk, sports, family gatherings and many other commitments. Still, they devote time and energy to dairy judging and are glad to do it. They believe in the values judging instills in youth. The kids also have other options, yet choose to be a part of a team, learning and doing their best. This, to me, is amazing.
    As I’ve coached our county team over the years, I have been surprised to learn of the people who are in many varied professions today who had been on dairy judging teams as youth. One who comes to mind is our high school choir director who judged in a national contest as a 4-Her, and who uses judging techniques to run his choir practices and performances.
    People talk about how the skills learned help them in their technical consulting, teaching, sales and marketing, or their dairy-related careers. Public speaking, quick thinking, decision making, confidence and understanding another point of view are examples of what judging can teach. Knowing how to quickly analyze and make decisions with the ability to defend your point of view with direct and concise words is useful every day.
    The experience of being on a team and working together on a goal is another skill judging brings to some who may not have it otherwise. The networking aspect of traveling to farms and contest participation is also a plus.
    Rolf and I are excited to have our three children a part of the University of Minnesota Dairy Cattle Judging team this fall. Emily is a senior and the boys are just starting as sophomores. They are busy now with practices; and the contests will follow. The team has a rich history of competing in 96 of the 98 years of national intercollegiate contests.
    Mike, my brother-in-law, set the judging bar high as a member of the U of M Dairy Cattle Judging Team winning the national collegiate contest in 1978. We admit our built-in bias for the team as we were members in college.
    No matter the 4-H county, FFA chapter, community college or university team that dairy judging youth and young adults compete in, the skills learned and memories made will surely last a lifetime. No matter which contest a team competes in or what the final results are, it is the experience and skills gained that count.
    It has been great fun to watch the teams succeed in the contests over the years. More importantly, it is totally exciting to watch the team members launch successful careers, coach youth teams, serve as official judges at shows around our dairy region, and share their skills and passion for judging and the industry they love.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.