AT THE edge of the fairgrounds' show ring, 4-H Club members waited for officials to bring out the first group of animals - four heifers, each weighing 900 to 1,300 pounds.
Once the animals were in the ring, the young judges would have about 12 minutes to evaluate and rank each animal, all the while taking notes to use in defending their decisions.
It was the June 19 session of the Howard County 4-H Livestock Judging Program, one of the oldest and most valued 4-H programs in the county.
"So many people don't learn how to evaluate and then make a decision and then organize their thoughts and speaking ability into defending that decision. That goes with you the rest of your life," said J. G. Warfield of Marriottsville, a 4-H parent and volunteer judge who is a alumnus of the program.
At judging practices and contests held on farms across Maryland and at the Howard County Fairgrounds, 4-H Club members learn to observe and evaluate different classes of animals.
"First, we walk up to the class," said Woodbine resident Rebecca Hamilton, 15. "There are four animals in every class, whether it's sheep, pigs or cows. We have to evaluate each animal by itself and then, once we do that, we compare them to the other animals in the class. And then whoever best combines all the traits will be first."
Decisions are recorded on a 4-H judging card; the cards are scored based on how the young judge's ranking compares with ranking done by an official. Afterward, the official explains how he ranked the class of animals. At practices, participants give the reasons for their decisions to their coaches: Chris Mullinix, 29, Graydon Ripley, 30, and Rob Rynarzewski, 19.
At a practice judging July 27 at the Howard County Fairgrounds, Kayla Seals, 13, of Sykesville and Morgan Meisenheimer, 13, of Mount Airy agreed that having to defend their decisions had its benefits, but could be nerve-racking.
"I'm still nervous," said Kayla, who is in her first year of livestock judging, "You have to memorize everything. You take notes, and then you have to memorize that and tell Grady or Chris."
Both girls said they thought the program helped a quiet friend feel more comfortable talking to people. "It helps you describe what you want to say better," Morgan said.
At contests such as the Cattail Classic, held July 10 at the Mullinix farm in Woodbine, participants must defend their decisions before a "reasons" judge.
"You give an oral presentation and, depending on your flow and your accuracy and your presentation, you're given points," Rebecca said. "But even if you placed a class completely wrong, you can still get a good reason score if you accurately describe what you saw."
Ben Warfield, 17, a rising senior at Glenelg High School, took first place in the 13- to 18-year-old senior division at the Cattail Classic. As a result, he was awarded a scholarship by Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., which has a nationally recognized livestock-judging team.
Ryan Bennett, 17, of Woodbine, who also received a scholarship, plans to major in political science and minor in agriculture this fall at Butler.
"This is probably one of the most influential things in my life right now," he said. "I'm going to college for free because of the program."
Brittany Bowman, Lauren Bresnock, Dustin Bresnock, Frankie Brigante, Charlie Coles, Billy Loveless, Katie Loveless and Jim Moxley are also participating in the Livestock Judging Program, which runs throughout the summer.
Howard County's Livestock Judging Program is open to young people ages 8 to 18. It requires no fees or equipment, and participants need not live on a farm.
"Ninety-nine percent of our kids do not live on a farm," said Martin Hamilton, the Maryland Cooperative Extension educator who oversees the 800-member Howard County 4-H program. "We probably do not have a total of 10 kids in our 4-H program whose parents make their living from agriculture."
But the training is valuable no matter where the participants live.
"This is by far the best program you could involve youth in because most of the kids here won't go into production agriculture and raise cattle for a living," Ripley said. "But the ability of an 8- or 9-year-old to stand up in front of groups of strangers and make a successful argument of why they placed a class a certain way is an invaluable lesson."
The Livestock Judging Program will culminate Aug. 14 at the Howard County Fair, when teams will be chosen to compete at the Maryland State Fair, Aug. 27 through Sept. 6.