ND: Meat Judging National Champions | TSLN.com

ND: Meat Judging National Champions

Rhonda Stearns
for Tri-State Livestock News
Rhea Laib, Ryeleigh Laib judging a practice class of ham. Photos courtesy Gary Martens
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On October 15, a fierce coach and three North Dakota 4-H members pursued their favorite school sport all the way to a National 4-H Meat Judging Championship at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Coach Gary Martens’ grassroots, ranch-reared North Dakota meats team entered the coolers in Kansas with cream of the crop peers from states spanning the continent: Florida, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, Tennessee, Indiana, New Mexico, Louisiana and many more. When the chill fog settled, the top scores of only 11 individuals exceeded 700.

Three of those were from the pacesetting North Dakota team. They virtually ran away with the championship by finishing 1st, 3rd and 6th in individual total scores. Rhea Laib’s 737 was the highest mark the judges awarded. In such an exacting science, her 9-point victory over the 728 of runner-up Ashley Hahn from Texas was stellar –especially remarkable because Rhea is 15 years old.

Hahn barely edged Rhea’s teammate Evan Bornemann who claimed 3rd overall with a strong 726. Rhea’s sister Ryeleigh’s 716 points garnered 6th place individually, nicely rounding out the significant North Dakota victory for Coach Gary Martens. Rhea Laib has a competitive streak. “It was very exciting when we won! It was neat to win the National 4-H Meats Judging because we beat the team from Texas that has won several years!”

Widely experienced in coaching both 4-H and FFA meats judging, Martens took the FFA team from Kenmare, North Dakota, to national competition at Indianapolis in 2011, where they captured a second place finish. Martens says the passionately competitive meat-judging spirit of his students truly astounds him. A second in 1994 national standings earned by his team from Carson was celebrated by all hands. He’s coached several other Reserve Champion teams, but 2011 revealed the ultimate depth of some students’ winning drive.

“They finished second at the national level, yet were weeping and devastated because they didn’t claim top spot!” he marvels. His appreciation and admiration for that ravenous drive to win fuels Martens’ enthusiasm for the sport and inspires him to be the best coach he can.

Gary’s 24/7 job is his commercial Angus cow-calf operation near the small northwestern North Dakota community of Ross, where he also produces alfalfa, soybeans, peas, wheat and flax. He is serving his first four-year term on the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association as their Region 6 Director.

He’s coached a number of reserve champion teams. “The Stockmen’s Association views coaching and participating on the national champion team as a really great accomplishment for any young person,” a spokesman said. “We’re especially proud of them being the first national champs from North Dakota; obviously they have a bright future ahead and we support them.”

Intercollegiate Meat Judging was first featured at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago in 1926, continuing as an annual event there except through the war years. The American Meat Science Association (AMSA) began sponsoring the program in 1996, and currently offers six annual competitions on behalf of America’s livestock and meat industries. National Western Stock Show and the American Royal are included, along with Southwestern, Eastern National, Cargill High Plains and the International. AMSA also provides assistance for several regional contests held under local sponsorship.

“Probably the last eight years I’ve become really very competitive in coaching,” Martens says. “I push my team to study, work, and dedicate themselves to being an honest team. I inform them everything they can or will accomplish is 85-90% up to them. Their work ethic and attitude are the deciding factors.”

Although he once coached an all-girl team, all living in town, a generation removed from any ranching connections, most of those Gary coaches have been active in 4-H and FFA beef projects, and judged cattle on the hoof. “Meats is a more exact science, though. You can actually measure different parts”, he explains.

Beyond determining quality and lean meat yield in a carcass or wholesale cut, judging arena skills equip individuals to assume industry leadership positions in their future. For developing young American livestock and meat industry leaders and future meat science technologists, it could well be today’s most effective tool.

Ranch kids on Gary’s team and others already understand genetics and selection of optimal breeding stock. They understand conformation, quality and type on the hoof. Yet, the science of hands on inspection and judging of the actual meat puts it all into a deeper perspective, kind of an x-ray peek into the marketable product they can expect from each heifer and bull they’re choosing for their individual breeding programs.

Coach Martens is devoted to helping students expand such knowledge. “Two kids on this team were on a previous FFA team and went to second in national competition. They wanted to continue meats judging by forming a 4-H team, but given North Dakota’s remoteness, opportunities for adequate team practice just weren’t available. “It’s a six hour drive from here to NDSU at Fargo!” he explains.

That ‘remote factor’ may even have enhanced opportunities for others of Martens’ meats judging team members, as he designed virtual learning tours en route to many of their competitions. “We are isolated, so maybe we leave a week early,” Gary says. “Where on the map is an educational opportunity to tie in with a particular judging competition?”

Each opportunity of proximity is capitalized on. “Being at the University of Wyoming puts us close to Colorado State University, then we might swing on into Kansas,” Gary summarizes. On the way to and from various competitions his team has received valuable training and experience through visiting numerous packing plants and participating in meats workouts as scattered as Kansas State, North Dakota State, University of Nebraska, University of Wyoming and Colorado State University, among others.

Such intensive practice is grueling, but the youngest team member Rhea Laib says she’s enjoyed it all, “especially the trips we’ve gone on! Getting to go to some of the packing plants was especially great. Tyson at Lexington, Nebraska, and Jocelyn, Illinois,” she recalls. Rhea admits her sister Ryeleigh “kind’a pushed me” to study meats judging – even when only in 7th grade – in order to form a team. “She wanted us to get a team and win state, so we could go to the national,” Rhea laughs.

Once she agreed, the hard work began in earnest. “We decided we could take time on Sunday evenings, so that’s when we practiced, usually every Sunday night we spent three or four hours practicing and studying. We had good resources to use, and studied anything we thought could help us during the contest,” Rhea explains. “Along with Sunday nights it was pretty much practice whenever we had any spare time, in school or anywhere else.”

Coach Martens adds, “One strong FFA chapter advisor told us of a boy who was skilled on retail cuts, so we picked up another team member. He caught on a lot in a short period of time; and, collectively, those three were really dedicated and had a huge desire to win. They dug in and kept on improving.”

Rhea had never given meats reasons in competition, so that was her steepest, most challenging learning curve. National competition includes three reasons classes, selected from beef, pork, and retail; with each contestant required to give three sets of oral reasons. Furthermore, the rules say, “The reasons classes will be chosen by the judges and announced to the contestants at the start of the contest. The contestant may not use notes while giving reasons, but will be provided reason cards to take notes during the contest to study before being called upon to recite. A set of reasons should be given to the judges in the order the contestant placed the class. Included in the reasons should be both criticism and grants for placing each class.”

“I worked and worked on that part, and on the trip down to the competition all we did was practice giving reasons,” Rhea remembers.

For youth through collegiate age students, judging is a competitive event with deep history in the meat industry. Exemplary of his North Dakota National Champion’s drive and will to win, Gary recalls Rhea, after taking second in a former national competition, disgustedly declaring, “I’m just done with being second!” That attitude and spirit was enough to generate ‘22,000 pounds of thrust’ for the magical 737 that lifted her to soar above all others and pilot her team to this 2019 National Championship!