PULLMAN, Wash. — Next week, nearly a dozen Washington State University students will travel more than 1,000 miles to spend several hours in a 34 degree cooler and outside in stockyards examining livestock for their carcass merit.
“My life is consumed by this, and I love it,” said Grace Lieuallen, a senior majoring in animal science. “I never expected to be living and breathing meat animal evaluation, but I’ve met so many interesting and awesome people. It’s great.”
Lieuallen is a member of WSU’s newly re-launched meat judging team, which travels to Canyon, Texas for the National Meat Animal Evaluation Contest on March 26-28.
The university hasn’t had a meat judging team since the early 1970s. Members joined with no experience and nerves rattling—and won both of the first two contests they entered.
“We were competing against schools that have been doing this for a long time,” said Joseph Koenig, a WSU junior majoring in animal science. “We came in really nervous but got more comfortable as we found a rhythm. It was a shock to win the first contest, though.”
Students credit team coach Blake Foraker, a meat scientist in WSU’s Department of Animal Sciences, for their success. Foraker, in turn, praises the students for their commitment to the team and to learning new skills, noting the long hours required to be successful.
The team practiced two or three times each week for three months before the first contest, averaging 10-12 hours a week. Road trips to contests or to practices in stockyards, which aren’t close to Pullman, can mean spending 30-50 hours together during the week, Foraker said.
“The members are students first, so they must prioritize academics. We routinely discuss how to balance commitment to the team with being a student,” said Foraker, who joined WSU last summer after earning a PhD at Texas Tech University. “Many students have jobs, too. It’s challenging, but these time management skills will set the students up for success in their futures.”
In addition to bolstering their ability to prioritize, collaboration is also key.
“I’ve learned so much about being on a team and working together to make the team successful,” said Mackenzie Shattuck, a junior majoring in agricultural education. “The intense schedule actually helped my grades. I’ve learned to finish the most important things first.”
Meat judging is about understanding meat, rather than eating it. The students evaluate cuts of beef, pork, and lamb in large meat coolers. One portion of the contest asks them to eyeball how much fat is on a cut of meat and provide their answers in fractions of an inch. Such precise measurements are used to assess the meat against USDA standards.
The contests have historically been dominated by schools in the center of the country, particularly in states like Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, because they’re geographically close to the country’s primary livestock and meat industry. WSU is trying to break into that upper echelon quickly, but those skills take time and repetition.
“You can’t do this one day, then repeat it in two months; you have to re-set your eye,” Foraker said. “It’s why our road trips are so intense. You have to look at thousands of cattle or carcasses to get good at this.”
Team members have noticed their skills growing, even outside of competitions.
“I work in a cattle-feeding lab on campus,” said Lauren Ziegler, a senior animal science major.
“I was looking at cattle today and said, ‘I think those need to be harvested.’ I couldn’t do that before. I can see how useful this is for anyone working in the meat industry.”
Hands-on skills and prioritization are important, but Foraker said he sees another, bigger picture skill the team learns: confidence.
“Judging teaches them how to make decisions and make them confidently,” he said. “It’s hard to do that as a young person. They are learning to think on their feet, to have a rationale for why they made a specific decision.”
The students are excited that Foraker re-started the team upon his arrival.
“It’s amazing for WSU to have this team,” Lieuallen said. “We’re meeting teams from other schools and meeting people in the industry. The team is a great bonus for students, and Blake provides that. He pushes us to do our best and work hard. I’ve enjoyed the whole experience.”
— WSU CAHNRS