Reflections of a meat judge: Five things I learned from looking at ribeye

FF Editor
Farm Forum

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by Maggie Vander Laan

Agricultural Communications Major, Meat Judging Team Member, South Dakota State University

Editor’s note: Throughout the spring and summer months, the Farm Forum will feature articles written by South Dakota State University agriculture communications students.

Passionate about agriculture, many of these students will pursue careers where they will promote the people, commodities, technology and research that make up the agricultural industry.

We hope you enjoy reading their articles and encourage you to reach out and share your story with them.

To learn more about the agriculture education, communication and leadership major at SDSU, contact Lyle Olson, interim department head for the Journalism and Mass Communications Department at SDSU, or 605-688-4171.

It’s 32 degrees in a blast freezer, you can’t feel your toes and you have absolutely no clue what you are looking at. The worst part? You must wear a hairnet.

This was me experiencing my first meat judging contest held at the world’s largest beef processing facility in Dakota City, Nebraska. I had decided before I even got out of the carcass-filled cooler that I was not going to continue. Meat judging was awful.

As I watched three of my childhood friends don the hairnets and head into the freezer, I decide to brace against the cold and go for it. I didn’t want to be left out. I took the plunge back in the cooler and became a meat judge. It was the best decision I have ever made.

I have learned more about myself and life from looking at a ribeye than I thought was humanly possible.

Now, for those readers who are not familiar with meats judging and whose closest contact with a frozen carcass is selecting steak at the grocery store meat counter, let me explain why I say this.


You won’t always have enough time. People run late. Things don’t always go as planned. Lack of sleep is a normal occurrence, and your temper will come out.

When you are trying to keep it together with seven different people who constantly spend time with you, will get annoyed, lose your cool and become easily aggravated. This is something that can happen in everyday life, and meat judging taught me to learn, grow, and have patience with others (an attribute I wasn’t strong in before).


Everyday is not going to be your day. There were days we would all write below 40’s on reasons and bust every single class, while other days we all were above 45 and place everything right.

Days like these are days when humility is taken into perspective. Judging has taught me to admit when I was wrong and realize that its ok. You aren’t always going to be right, and you are blessed enough to have teammates who will show you how to correct your mistake and learn from the process.

Judging also taught me that my teammates’ feelings and thoughts go before my own. They encouraged me to not only push myself but them as well. Judging taught me that it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if you win or lose — the skills you have gained open your world to a whole new perspective.


As a judge meat I had the opportunity to travel across the country attending competitions held in processing plants from Denver to Amarillo, Ft. Worth to Pennsylvania with stops in Manhattan, College Station, Lubbock, San Angelo and Hereford all within 11 months. Those trips and thousands of miles filled my mind with a lifetime of memories with some of my best friends. I grew closer with a group of people who were always there for me, had my back, could make me laugh, and picked me up when I was down. For that I will forever be thankful.

Decision making

I’ve been blessed enough to have grown up on a farm south of Beresford where I was highly involved in the livestock industry. Throughout my childhood I participated in 4-H livestock judging where this skill was an attribute to my everyday life. Not until I joined meat judging did I realize what an important role it was to my future. My teammates and I developed the ability to make critical decisions and back up our choice and justify why we decided to do what we did. In life we all have decisions we need to make, and thanks to meat judging I know how to take in all of my options and make that important decision knowing I have thoroughly thought it through.


Your meat judging team becomes your family. I spent thousands of hours with them throughout a year and a half’s time. We have all watched and aided each other, growing as individuals who are inspiring to achieve our dreams.

I learned to care about each teammate outside of meat judging and into the classroom and each other’s personal lives. My teammates are there for me through my greatest highs and lowest lows.

Meat judging taught me to be selfless and show compassion to other people with whom I work day-after-day.

As I never intended to spend much of my college career looking at beef caresses in my free time, I couldn’t have imagined the joy that looking at meat has brought to my life.

When I walked out of that last freezer, I was sad it was over. Reflecting on the memories, I feel accomplished and teary-eyed as I remember what meat judging has done for me.

I will forever be thankful for cooler coats, felt tip blue pens, steel-toed twisted shoes, bright white frocks and, yes, even hairnets.

They are all part of the person I have become because of meat judging.

Maggie Vander Laan is a current senior studying agriculture communications and minoring is animal science and meat science. Maggie is from Beresford, S.D., where she spent her youth working on show cattle in the cooler. Maggie graduates this summer. She will be working as a sales development representative with Farmers Business Network.

Maggie Vander Laan
The 2016 SDSU Meat Judging Team. Pictured left to right: Danielle Evers, Maggie Vander Laan, Kyler Johnson, Andrew Berg, Halley Becking, and Coach Heather Rode.” Photo courtesy of Rachel Adams, America Meat Science Association