Big wins at the National FFA Convention’s dairy judging contest in Indianapolis, Indiana, last fall translated to a trip overseas for a group of youth from Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin in late June and July.
The Illinois team from Eastland FFA and Maquoketa Valley FFA’s team from Iowa earned invitations to the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh by being first and third, respectively, in Indianapolis. Their trip included travel across Scotland to visit farms, agricultural and historic sites, and they traveled by ferry to Belfast, Northern Ireland, then headed south to the Republic of Ireland. Most of the group left June 22 and returned July 4.
The Royal Highland Show’s judging contest presented a new challenge for the U.S.-trained youth.
“The biggest difference was time for each class,” said Ella Gunderson, an Eastland team member. “If I thought I struggled over here, it was a really short time over there.”
The time allowed for judging each of the four classes was five minutes, even when designated as an oral reasons class.
Gunderson’s teammate Delana Erbsen said she did not find the timeframe too difficult.
“Usually when I judge, I see the cows the first time and go with my gut,” Delana said. “But my reasons were probably not great.”
The contest included two Holstein and two Ayrshire classes, with one of each chosen for oral reasons. The teams judged in pairs with a partner from their own team if one was available. However, Iowa’s fourth member, Courtney Goedken, and Illinois’ Alyssa Miller did not make the trip, so one of each of the teams was assigned a different partner.
“It was obviously very different,” said Haley Ronnebaum, from the Maquoketa Valley team that also included siblings Alia and Lane Domeyer. “The cattle were (designated) ABXY instead of 1234.”
Nevin Erbsen, Delana’s cousin and the Eastland team’s third member, said it was also strange to wear the white lab coats assigned to competitors in European contests.
Before judging, the Americans received a briefing on traits that are part of the European evaluation of cattle. Nevin said he was surprised to hear how focused it was on balance, width of muzzle and length of head, along with sparkle of the eye. Although the Americans gave reasons to a separate judge from the other contestants, Nevin said he tried to update his reasons terminology.
“I threw in some ‘sparkle of the eye,’ just so they knew I was there to try,” he said.
Hailey Clausen and Courtney Glenna, of Wisconsin’s Amery FFA Chapter, were also part of the trip. The Amery pair and Ben Styer of Menomonie, Wisconsin, as well as members from Prairie Central FFA in Illinois earned invitations at the 2019 national 4-H and FFA contests, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from traveling until this summer.
Since only the top teams are announced and none of the American teams were among them, the FFA members did not find out how they fared.
“I haven’t even looked at my cards,” Ronnebaum said.
She said the American youth talked a bit with those from European organizations on contest day.
“But they were pretty serious about their judging there, trying to win the young farmer event,” she said. “We did talk to quite a few folks in the barns, though.”
It was traveling with the American group that Ronnebaum enjoyed the most.
“Being around the other teams and competing with them against them was the best part,” Ronnebaum said. “We were on a bus together for a really long time so we all got to talking, and then at night, we would visit each other in our rooms.”
While attending a local event in Ireland, members from various teams mixed up members to judge three dairy and one beef class.
Nevin said he loved the Royal Highland Show, comparing it to World Dairy Expo in its massive presentation of agriculture but with other livestock and equipment.
“Interestingly enough, we saw a cow that was an offspring of an embryo my uncle was part owner in,” he said. “It was cool to see genetics from something we have raised.”
Delana said she was excited to see the Scottish farm of a person who had interned on an Illinois friend’s farm. A cow on the Scottish farm had originated from an embryo that traveled home from the U.S. with the intern.
Both Gunderson and Erbsen noticed a difference in how the dairies they saw feed their animals, relying heavier on grazing and not having corn and soybean readily available, and using barley or wheat straw as energy sources. Ronnebaum said she was surprised at what she called “weird rules.”
“Their calves have to be able to touch noses with another calf,” Ronnebaum said. “So most of what we saw were group pens.”
Nevin also noted the differences.
“There is so much to learn from European agriculture – how they are still using old ways, the way they pasture their animals and how they raise their calves,” he said.
Maquoketa Valley’s FFA advisor, Haylee Lau, said her team’s trip cost about $20,000, and community support allowed the students to make the trip without investing their own money. She traveled with the team, along with two parents.
Likewise, Eastland’s delegation included its FFA advisor, Cindy Feltmeyer, and her husband along with three parents.
Eastland’s team also had community financial support and significant help from the Illinois Holstein Association.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure,” Nevin said.