It’s been 12 years since I signed up for the introduction to meat judging class at South Dakota State University, and it’s the best decision I ever made in my entire life. Hands down.
Encouraged by friends to join the team, it was my first foray into the competitive world of meat judging. Sure, I had grown up judging livestock, but there’s a huge difference between spending the day in the sunshine evaluating live animals compared to judging slabs of meat and carcasses in a cold cooler for hours on end.
An entire day could pass, and our team might not see the sunshine. Practice would begin before dawn, and we would exit the packing plant after dark with aching feet, frozen fingers and groggy, tired eyes.
Sound like fun? Perhaps not, and for the outsider looking in, it sounds more weird than enjoyable. However, for those who experience it, it’s an addictive, competitive adventure that very few can understand and appreciate.
I competed on SDSU’s 2008 meat judging team, and while I only lasted through the spring season before my freelance writing career took off, it was a great learning experience.
The class and competitions allowed me to connect the dots between my childhood spent on a cow-calf operation to the processing and retail side of the beef industry.
As a team, we traveled the country and toured the nation’s largest processing facilities — a rare glimpse into that side of the meat industry that so few get to see.
Most importantly, joining the team allowed me to meet my future husband, Tyler, and for that, I’m forever grateful for our friends who encouraged us both to join the team. I’m not sure our paths would have crossed otherwise, and even though a meat cooler is hardly the ideal setting for a romance to bloom, I know many couples who met and fell in love while judging on collegiate meat teams.
Recently, Sports Illustrated highlighted meat judging in an article titled, “Welcome to the world of competitive intercollegiate meat judging.” Written by Mike Piellucci, the article goes in-depth into the recruitment, rivalries, commitment, competitions and impact of this “sport.”
Piellucci writes, “Intercollegiate meat judging is like no sport you’ve ever seen. Its core components, however, are intimately familiar to anyone who follows NCAA athletics. It’s college football in a cooler, a world built around high school recruiting, top-notch facilities, competition for scholarships, rivalries, national championships, All-Americans and professional scouts. The biggest difference? Here, college students aren’t the meat market. They grade the beef.”
The Sports Illustrated article captures it all — from the steel-toed boots, to the gloved hands scribbling notes and filling in score cards, to hooded sweatshirts worn under white lab coats, hair nets and hard hats, to the intensity in which students approach practices and competitions, to the meat careers available to these young people.
I loved the article and the fact that it made the meat industry look cool and sexy to a new audience. It’s not often that the beef industry (unless it's the media glamorizing lab-grown protein patties) is highlighted in a positive way, and this article does exactly that.
Thanks, Sports Illustrated, for the trip down memory lane and for featuring an obscure and relatively unknown part of the agricultural industry that truly impacts every meat consumer in the U.S. and around the world.
Were you a collegiate meat judger? What did you love most about the experience? Share your favorite memories in the comments section.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.