By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY - The West Rowan High School team won top honors Thursday in a statewide competition that brought more than 600 farming students to Salisbury.
The North Carolina 4-H/FFA Dairy Judging Contest, which is the largest FFA event in the state, was held Thursday at the Rowan County fairgrounds.
As the high-scoring team in the senior FFA contest, West Rowan is now eligible to compete at the National FFA Convention in 2013.
Lauren Luther led the team with her first place win in the individual senior FFA contest. Other team members included Jacob Watson, Ryan Menius and William Little.
Jonathan Luther, Lauren's brother, placed first individually in the junior FFA contest.
Luther is a ninth-grade student at West Rowan High School, and he said he hopes to be a dairy farmer someday. Before the contest ended, Luther said this was his first time competing and he found it a little "weird" and challenging.
"I live around a bunch of cows, but I don't really judge them, so it's kind of hard," he said. "My cousin has done this, and so have my grandpa and my sister. They all taught me."
Luther and his classmates McKenzie Dixon and Abbie Martin earned fifth place among the junior teams.
The state dairy judging contest is planned and conducted by the North Carolina FFA, North Carolina 4-H, Piedmont Research Station and Cooperative Extension.
State FFA Coordinator Jason Davis said the event is traditionally held in Rowan County because of the research station and its connection with dairy cattle.
"It's a good working partnership and relationship, and this continues to grow every year," Davis said. "It exposes students to the dairy industry and dairy science. A lot of them have never seen a dairy cow in person until they get here."
During most of the competition, students stood holding clipboards next to large animal pens, bundled up against the cold, damp weather Thursday.
Local volunteers then walked past them with four cows, stopping in different positions to allow for a closer look at the animals.
The students judged the quality of each animal's udders, body frame, dairy characteristics and other physical traits. They then placed the animals in order with overall rankings.
"Getting the placing right is the hard part," said Menius, a 10th-grade student who competed with West's winning team. To prepare, students visit farms, "practice every other day after school and take a test."
Throughout the competition, students rotated in groups to evaluate a total of six classes of dairy cows and heifers. For two of the classes, students then had to explain to judges why they placed the animals they way they did.
"They use critical thinking and problem solving, and they have to do it using scientific terminology," Davis said.
Nicole Bulla, a 10th grader at Jesse C. Carson High School, and Taylor Brewer, a ninth-grader at South Rowan High School, said they think this oral presentation is the hardest part of the contest.
"You have to memorize it in 15 minutes," Bulla said.
"And you can't show your paper," Brewer added, gesturing to the clipboard of notes that each student carried around.
Both said they were cold but having fun, and they enjoyed the educational sessions that served as breaks from judging.
Bruce Miller, a soil and water conservation district supervisor for Rowan County, taught one session about using agricultural byproducts as feed additives.
A veterinarian from N.C. State University presented an educational program on the life of a dairy animal.
The students got to participate in a third session by putting on plastic gloves and reaching into the stomach of a live fistulated steer.
"Fistulated cows have had a window, basically, put into the side of their body," Davis said. "That allows scientist to sample the fluid from the rumen," which is the first division of the stomach in ruminant animals like cows.
Jesse C. Carson High School took second place in the senior FFA contest with team members Jacob Pless, April Lamb, Olivia Horning and Megan Yates.
Bulla, along with teammattes McKenna Burton and Marissa Johnstone, placed 17th in the junior contest.
Placing sixth in the senior FFA contest was South Rowan High School, led by Haley Shore, who ranked fifth among the individuals. Other team members include Joey Ashley, Megan McCollum and Kayla Sellers.
Brewer and teammates Micah Helms and Thomas (no other name listed) placed 20th for South Rowan in the junior contest.
One of Rowan County's two 4-H senior teams placed first in the 4-H contest, including members Lauren Luther (first overall), Jacob Watson (fourth overall), Jacob Pless (seventh overall) and Ryan Menius (10th overall). Megan Yates (ninth overall) and Olivia Horning (11th overall) formed another Rowan team that came in 10th place.
Top scorers in the 4-H contest are eligible to try out for the N.C. 4-H Dairy Judging Team, which will represent the state at national dairy judging contests next year.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.