Students learning how to ‘meat’ expectations |

Students learning how to ‘meat’ expectations

Colette “Koko” Gjermundson
for Tri-State Livestock News

Dressed in disposable frocks and hairnets with clipboards in hand, 4-H and FFA youth evaluate carcasses and cuts in the chilly 35-degree atmosphere of a meats lab. They're discovering how to place beef carcasses by quality and yield grade, learning to identify retail cuts and answering questions or giving reasons for their decisions. In the process, they understand that the chain of production doesn't end when backgrounded calves walk onto the semi truck. They're learning how to be better beef producers, consumers and promoters.

This is a scene that excites meats judging enthusiast Gary Martens, Ross, North Dakota. A former ag instructor and FFA meats judging coach with more than 20 years of meats coaching experience under his belt, Martens has been working since 2011 to establish 4-H meats judging competitions in North Dakota.

Promoting 4-H meats judging

In a proposal letter to the state's 4-H Livestock Advisory Committee Martens states, "We are a large agricultural state where many…students will be in careers directly involved with the production of meat animals, health, food science and food safety. Meats judging would be a tremendous way to complement and expand the knowledge of these students with a practical, hands-on educational approach."

Martens received significant endorsement from North Dakota State University personnel as well as enthusiastic FFA meats judging coaches and team members and agricultural extension agents.

Two state 4-H meats judging contests have been held to date. Twenty to 30 students participated each year in Fargo in June. The competition is open to 4-Hers ages 8-18. They identify actual retail cuts, and at various levels they answer open book questions and/or give oral reasons.

Recommended Stories For You

The winning North Dakota 4-H senior meats judging team goes on to compete in the National 4-H Meat Evaluation and Identification Contest in Manhattan, Kan., in October as well as the Western National Roundup at the JBS North American Headquarters in Greeley, Colo., the following January.

Martens has supervised and coached numerous state teams. He's coached or assisted successful state FFA meats judging teams from Carson, Jamestown, and two from Kenmare, North Dakota. These teams have placed second high in the nation with multiple individuals placing in the top-ten nationally. He also coached FFA teams at Killdeer and Stanley, N.D. More recently he has coached/assisted with 4-H individuals from Ward County and a Mountrail County team. In October 2014 a Mountrail team placed third out of 16 teams with all four individuals in the top 20 and the team in the top five in every category nationally.

In January 2015 a Mountrail team travelled to the Western National where they placed second in retails, placings and reasons and second overall, with a second-high individual overall. Martens states, "I know North Dakota can compete!"

Youth in training

Asked how he motivates youth to learn meats judging, Martens smiles wide, "I've got a pair of pointed-toe boots."

"Actually," he adds, "It's easy for me to teach meats judging. I think I'm able to make it exciting for them through the one-liners and puns that come naturally to me. I try to cram a lot of knowledge into them, but I also make sure that they have fun." He adds that once they experience meats judging success, a competitive fire ignites.

Martens begins training a meats judging team by teaching them retail cuts, including the species, primal, retail name and cookery for each cut. Specifically, it means identifying 45 beef cuts, 44 pork cuts, 17 lamb cuts, and 14 variety cuts. The coach and students spend hours studying slides, flash cards, photos and websites.

Next, they look at actual retail cuts at local butcher shops, grocery stores, or as vacuum-packed product. "Learning retail cuts is time consuming, but once a kid masters it they have that knowledge for life," Martens says.

Meats judgers learn how to place classes by studying handouts and learning placing priorities. Martens explains how to take notes and give oral reasons.

In placing meats judging classes and giving reasons students consider muscle, trim, and quality. Quality is the first priority in beef carcasses, beef ribs, and beef loins. That determines whether the carcass is select, choice, upper two-thirds choice, or prime. Back fat is the first consideration in pork carcasses. Muscle-to-fat or cutability is the most significant factor in placing retail cuts. "This is a lot more exact than livestock judging," Martens says. "You can actually measure fat, thickness and eye sizes."

Opportunity for success

Meats judging brings opportunities to think and practice decision-making. "It teaches them how to work hard, and teaches responsibility and commitment to themselves and to their teammates," Martens says. "Kids that work and care are the ones that are going to do well."

He noted one FFA judger who placed second from last in a national contest in January 2014 but nine months later tied for high individual overall at another national contest. "That was pure effort, hard work and a caring attitude on the part of that student." He smiles, "These are competitive students from small towns. Often, they're the ones who are involved in nearly every activity there is."

Among those whom Martens has coached is Caleen Crider, Donnybrook, North Dakota, who says, "Gary has a lot of passion for the meat industry and he really likes to help kids learn. He makes meats judging fun and easy to learn. He always has a lot of jokes. I really enjoyed learning under him because he taught us meats judging, but he also taught us other agricultural skills and important life skills." As one who competed in four national contests, Crider adds, "Gary is a 'go, go, go' person. We were always the last team in the plant because he wanted to make sure that we had every opportunity to study and learn. He always prepared us for the next step."

Jonathan Rosencrans, Powers Lake, North Dakota was involved with Martens in 4-H meats judging for just 10 months before heading to college and says, "I can see almost any cut of meat and know where it comes from on the animal." He learned what a slaughter-ready animal looks like, can compare the quality of meat products and also learned about cookery. He adds, "Giving reasons helped with public speaking. It's fun to be with friends, too."

Though the workouts and the travel time sometimes means very late nights or very early mornings, "We do what we have to do," Martens says. On judging trips students practice in various university meats labs and tour packing plants.

"We're giving these kids a heckuva education," Martens says. "I don't think there are a lot of producers who know what is under the hide on cattle. I see too much emphasis on big rib eyes, when in fact, marbling is a bigger factor."

Rancher and fellow coach Trent Schneider, Hebron, North Dakota, notes that Martens truly is the brains and the brawn behind North Dakota 4-H meats judging. "There's nobody more excited about it or who feels that this contest needs to be a part of 4-H more than Gary does," he said. "I think it's a good thing."

One night while traveling with a team, Martens was so intent on giving kids opportunities and filling them with knowledge that he completely forgot to stop for supper. The next morning Schneider quietly suggested, "Maybe we should feed these kids?"

To fuel his meats judging passion Martens develops study material and prints it on his own penny, personally sponsors awards and seeks donations from businesses for travel expenses. "There are costs," he admits, "But there is a lot of support and sponsorship at the same time."

Looking ahead

The prospect of other adults stepping up to coach meats judging excites Martens. "The biggest obstacle we've got right now is we need more coaches to help these kids learn the retail cuts," he says. "If you can't compete in retails you can't compete."

He has visions of printing a complete judging manual, involving second-high placing teams in national contests and possibly taking North Dakota students to the South Dakota State University Little I meats judging contest.

Thinking about his dream for North Dakota 4-Hers to have meats judging opportunities Martens said, "First of all, I hope this survives. Second of all, I hope it grows. It's my goal to grow the state contest to more than 10 senior teams participating each year."

He concludes, "It's about the kids. They'll come back and tell you later…Well…," he grins, "You never know WHAT they're going to come back and tell you later! But they will usually tell you what they learned and how much fun they had. One gal I coached interned at Cloverdale Foods, Mandan, North Dakota, so it may be a career path for some. Regardless, it's a good experience for everyone involved and it's consumer knowledge for life."

Gary Martens: Jack-of-all-Trades

Gary Martens grew up with four siblings on a small grains and beef cattle operation between Ross and New Town in western North Dakota. As a student in Stanley, North Dakota, he was very active in 4-H and FFA. “I always wanted to be involved in agriculture,” he says. He attended North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota, earning a degree in agricultural education and eventually a master’s of science in agricultural education.

He taught at Killdeer, Carson and Stanley, North Dakota, schools, but his life experiences stretch way beyond a list of small towns where he influenced youth.

After two years of teaching he and a friend spent seven months in Australia and New Zealand with a tourist stop in Fiji. “We literally jumped off the airplane in Australia and said, ‘Here we are,’” Martens says, noting that they had agricultural contacts they’d gathered from peers. “We did whatever odd jobs we could find, but most of them were agricultural.” He worked as a night irrigator on a cotton farm, on sheep operations, did general fieldwork and hauled and stacked hay. In New Zealand they helped with haying. He explains that New Zealanders raise a lot of deer and Romney sheep. He remembers the beautiful scenery. “One day we were water skiing with a family and in the backdrop you could see snow-capped mountains.“

Upon returning to the U.S., Martens taught at Carson, North Dakota “Agriculture and FFA were important to a lot of those kids in Grant County,” he says. He and the students were active and competitive with many judging teams. “That’s where I coached my first state-winning FFA meats judging team that went on to place second nationally,” he says. “Being in Carson was four good years for me. Everything we touched turned to gold.”

During those years the school began participating in the Rural Enterprise Adoption Program. Martens and a group of Carson FFA members spent a month in the Republic of Buryatia in Eastern Russia. “By the time we got to eastern Siberia we were 18 time zones away from home,” Martens recalls. “We were out in a little village with a goal of setting up a little 4-H club or FFA chapter. With the language barrier, it was a challenge.”

The group helped the Russians halter calves with rope and build pig pens. They organized a vegetable show, a livestock show and a horsemanship contest. “It was similar to western pleasure with riders in full Buryat robes, as they are of Mongolian descent,” Martens says. The group presented U.S. coins, caps, pencils and pens as awards.

The Carson group also donated a used University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota, microscope to a medical facility in Buryatia. “It was quite an eye-opening experience,” Martens says, “Especially for a group of high school kids to be able to go and do that.”

Martens has also worked in Alaska a couple of times. “I worked in Sitka as a deck hand on a tourist boat,” he says. He also ran a rock crusher at Eagle River north of Anchorage.

Additionally, he drove a belly-dump truck in eastern North Dakota following the 1997 Grand Forks flood. He’s hauled beets in the Red River Valley. He’s worked various jobs in the oil field, mostly as a pumper. He spent a year teaching at Fort Berthold Community College, New Town, North Dakota and was the agricultural teacher and FFA advisor in Stanley, North Dakota from the late 1990s into the mid-2000s.

Today he is a rancher and farmer who is an adamant supporter of 4-H meats judging. He says, “It’s been a fun ride and I hope it continues. I think there’s a group of North Dakotans who would like to see the state bring home a national meats judging championship.”