COLUMBIA — The red clipboard held two white worksheets covered in graphs and a large yellow steno pad. Next to it on the table lay two sharpened pencils.
The room was tense. Soon, hundreds of students from high schools all over the state would scratch away at the worksheets, vying to be the best livestock, horse, or poultry judge at the FFA state competition.
Nearby, Cuba High School sophomore Shayla Mitchell sat next to her sister, senior Samantha Mitchell. The girls talked about judging the different livestock animals and trying to keep their wits about them.
“I’m nervous," Shayla said. "States is a big deal."
Thursday and Friday, Columbia plays host to the 83rd Annual Missouri FFA — formerly Future Farmers of America — Convention. The schedule is exhausted with events including talent shows, meat and animal judging and guest speakers.
Princeton High School junior Jacob Pollard has been to the FFA convention the past two years and takes it very seriously. He placed ninth in the livestock-judging event.
“They say there’s two things you don’t mess with at our school: football and FFA,” he said.
Judging livestock at Trowbrige Livestock Center
As part of the livestock-judging event, Shayla was required to judge an animal based on its muscle, structure, genetics and fat.
The smell of manure inside the livestock center was suffocating, to the point it could be tasted. Shayla, though, who lives on a farm with 30 horses and about 120 cattle, doesn’t even notice the smell.
Students wandered around cows, goats, pigs, lambs and sheep throughout the day, watching intently and making sure they correctly surveyed the animal. When judging the goats, each student was given 10 seconds to handle the animal.
Shayla said judging the sheep would be hardest for her. “I don’t know anything about sheep,” she said.
After the students were finished writing down their scores for each animal, they had to defend their decisions in a formal speech without notes.
Aurora High School took first place in the event, Princeton took second and Russellville High School took third.
Judging horses at the Stephens College stables
After the horse-judging event, four girls from Malta Bend High School waited for their bus in front of the stables. The girls wore matching bright purple button-down shirts, brown belts and brown cowboy boots.
They had been preparing all year for this event. The group earned a No. 1 rank coming into the competition after winning first place at districts. In order to keep up their game, they practiced at various contests, took exams online and visited local horse breeders to understand the reasoning behind giving horses certain scores.
But all their hard work doesn’t guarantee anything. Princeton High School took first place and Malta Bend took fourth.
“We always underestimate ourselves, but then we do pretty good,” said Bristol Rigby, a senior in the group.
“Hopefully if we think we did bad, we’ll come out on top,” junior friend, teammate and eighth-place winner Dawn Gorrell replied.
“Hopefully the judges had mercy on us today," Rigby said, laughing. "We were all a little nervous because it’s states.”
Another competitor, Ashley Holt, a junior at Ozark High School, said she had never been asked many of the questions on the 50-question exam about horse anatomy and health.
“My teacher told us that if it was hard for us, it was hard for everyone, since we made it through districts pretty easily,” she said.
After the exam, students judged horses based on their performance in two types of patterns the horses had to follow. The students, like those in the livestock-judging event, had to give their reasons for the scores they gave in a formal speech.
“It’s intense," said Kristy Tiesing, the event's student superintendent. "They are all pretty into it. Honestly, Missouri takes FFA to a different level than most states do.”
Holt said she wasn’t too worried about giving her reasons, even though she wasn’t prepared for one of the patterns the horses used in performance. “I’m normally pretty good at giving reasons. I just got up there and did what I had to do,” Holt said.
Jessie Gorrell, a freshman at Malta Bend High School, said her heart was pounding and that she had butterflies and was shaking. “It’s aging me,” she said, laughing.
Poultry judging at Hearne’s Center Field House
The poultry-judging event was silent.
Behind closed curtains with signs telling people to keep quiet, students took a test over various poultry subjects.
After the test, students judged plucked chickens without heads or feet hanging from racks, chicken nuggets, chicken tenders, patties, wings and other processed poultry. Eight live chickens were caged in the back for students to survey as well. Behind another set of curtains, students defended the scores they gave.
East Newton (Granby) High School took first place. Paris High School won second and Wheaton took third.
Friday, students will participate in public speaking, forestry and a number of other events. Click here for the full schedule.