In a state where basketball and football championships are celebrated across the news media, a very different team at Spencer County High School in Taylorsville, Ky., deserves far more attention than it has received.
The Future Farmers of America’s Dairy Judging Team has for the last four years in a row has won the national FFA contest in that field. And they’ve won in seven of the competitions since 2005. In June 2017, the team traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, where they placed second in the International Dairy Judging competition. And that’s pretty remarkable for ANY team in ANY field.
To make it even more remarkable, none of the four boys on the team lives on a farm and not one of them owns any dairy cattle! However, the four are honor students and all of them plan to begin college this fall, all but one of them studying in fields other than agriculture.
They have been coached throughout their high school careers by a remarkable veteran agricultural educator, Bland Baird, who intended to go to law school but got sidetracked when offered an ag teaching job at Spencer County High back in 1977. He was approached “during the Christmas break … about covering for the previous ag teacher who got sick.
“I have had the ideal job,” Baird observes, “and it has been both my vocation and avocation.”
Few have achieved more in their given careers, and ever fewer can see the impact they have had on young people’s lives. Although he officially retired two years ago, he continues to guide students in a part-time capacity. This remarkable educator’s offerings include teaching an animal science extension class for Murray State University, and guiding high school freshmen in introductory agriculture.
Let’s take a look at his internationally acclaimed Dairy Judge team of 2016-17. All four are honor students, and all four are boys. (Baird notes that generally girls are part of the program and some award winning teams in the past have consisted of all girls.) The members are:
--David Luke Williamson, will be a finance major at Western Kentucky University, and he plans to attend law school afterward.
--Michael Bentley will attend the Speed Engineering School at the University of Louisville, where he will major in electrical or mechanical engineering.
--Max Dippell will attend the University of Kentucky, majoring in agricultural education. His goal is to follow in Baird’s footsteps as an agriculture teacher.
--John Brumley will be a pre-veterinary medicine major at Murray State University.
This writer had never heard of Dairy Judging before. In an interview with Luke Williamson’s grandmother, Cathy Barr of Taylorsville, she suggested going directly to Luke to ask exactly what it consists of.
“Dairy judging is based on traits found in cows that indicate milkability, production, good health, etc. The most important in this is the udder – how high the rear udder is. A strong crease in the rear udder indicates a strong suspensory ligament, which can show how long a cow can keep milking. You don’t want strutting teats, and you would prefer them squarely placed on all four quarters (for ease of milking).
“Dairy strength is next,” Luke continued, “which is how big they are and how skinny they are. You want a large, tall cow that carries very little muscle and very little fat. A fat or muscular cow will produce less milk than a skinny cow (meaning that a skinny cow puts more or most of its intake into milk production). Frame is important as well, but it’s the lowest area on the scorecard. You want square shoulders that blend well. You want a straight top line and very straight hooks and pins. Low pins or high pins can affect breeding and birthing.”
Pins and hooks? Those terms stumped me! According to the website houzz.com, “Think of the hip bone … the top nearest the rear of the cow is the pin bone and the higher sharper cone located in front of that is the hook.”
Luke continued: “Feet and legs are another low area on the score card, but they are important You have to make sure the cow walks straight and that its legs aren’t sickled or hocked in.
“This is dairy judging, simply put.”
But actually that’s not all that the boys from Spencer County went through to win top awards nationally and internationally, says Baird. “In the contest, the students place six classes of dairy animals based on the desired type and then give reasons individual to professional dairy men and college professors on three of the classes to defend their placings. Also, they are present a real-life problem that a dairy person would encounter and then have 45 minutes to work up a 10-minute presentation as a consultant to provide a remedy for the problem.
“They also have an exercise where they utilize farmers’ production records and then answer questions related to production, reproduction and health issues. Finally, they take a test on their knowledge of dairy farm principles.” So, as Baird concludes, there’s far more than “just place of animals.” The process of preparing also hones the speaking and interview skills of team members as well as their decision-making capabilities.
Taking a team around the United States for competition and then abroad is not an inexpensive business. The FFA at Spencer County High has a full schedule of fund-raising efforts including “speaking to farm groups, doing public relations appearances for groups including John Deere and Monsanto. We also sponsored a farm toy show that had over 1,500 visitors and had a raffle for a pickup (truck). Last year we had a “Dancing With the Stars,” said team adviser Baird.
As the champs from 2016-17 move on to college, young future farmers are coming along through the Spencer County High School. According to Baird: “Each year I teach a two-week unit in the freshmen exploratory class on dairy judging. I then offer any student who is interested the opportunity to attend workshops attended by the University of Kentucky. We usually have 15 or 20 who attend these. After this activity, those that want to advance their skills go to weekend workouts in the fall and participate in several field days in the state.”
Without question, it’s an impressive experience. And remember, there are many other schools in Kentucky who have dairy judging too. Winning the international award means a great deal, and it elevates the image of the Bluegrass State as a place that cherishes our agricultural heritage and our belief that the health of all is strengthened by the devotion of those who produce and sustain our farmlands.
Mary Berry Smith, executive director of the Berry Center in New Castle, Ky., perhaps says it best: “Kentucky’s agrarian history is too often ignored in our schools. How wonderful to know about a good teacher and bright students studying what, I believe to be, the essential knowledge of how human beings feed themselves. Especially in a state with a strong dairy farming history. That in itself is the most hopeful of news. That they have been and are being internationally recognized for their achievement is a credit to them for their hard work, and it gives me another reason to be a proud citizen for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Her father, writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, couldn’t have said it better.