Fish making the grade in meat judging

Jacob Fish headed to Garden City Community College with a football scholarship last fall, hoping to make a competitive impact for the Broncobusters.

As it turns out, the Hillsboro High School graduate is making an impact in his sport of choice?but the choice has changed.

Fish accepted a books-and-tuition scholarship to be part of the schools? meat-judging team. Earlier this month he scored big, winning the individual championship in the junior-college division at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo Contest in Texas.

?It was huge,? Fish said of the overall event, which lasted March 1-20 and drew a record 244,000 people this year.

?I think it?s been the biggest stock show we?ve been to so far.?

The March 5 contest drew 75 to 90 contestants in the two-year school division.

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?We go representing the school, but it?s an individual event as well as a team event,? Fish said.

All 13 members of Garden City?s team competed at the event, but only four team members were designated to contribute to the team score.

?I?ve made the four every contest so far,? Fish said. ?(Coaches) actually have to pick the four before you go in?and we (team members) don?t know. At different schools, they know. But our coach?s philosophy is if you don?t know, you?re going to do your best.?

Houston?s contest followed the format of most intercollegiate contests. The two-year schools compete separately from the four-year schools, but the format is the same for both.

?They have classes where you pick the best carcass,? Fish said. ?There?s pork, lamb and beef classes. There?s also grading classes. There?s quality grading and yield grading, where it?s just like USDA graders would do for the beef that we eat.

?You?ve heard of prime, choice and select?we do that to each carcass. There?s a rail of 15 (carcasses) per grading class.?

Garden City?s team focuses on the beef class in the grading competition, but team members also rank carcasses in the pork and lamb classes, too.

For his efforts at Houston, Fish brought home four trophies and a plaque. In addition to winning the overall title, he won the questions division, in which judges ask questions on such things as muscling and meat quality. He also won the pork judging and beef judging.

Change of plans

Fish?s transition at GCCC from the gridiron to the meat cooler still surprises him.

?It was kind of weird?I went out there for football and ended up in meat judging,? he said with a smile. ?I went out for football, and then a couple of weeks into school my ag teacher was talking about judging.

?I was doing pretty well in his classes, and he asked me what I?m out here for. I said football. He asked how it was going and I said, ?Well, it?s a little rough right now.?

?He goes, ?Not to pull you from the football team, but I have a books-and-tuition scholarship for you so you can judge.?

?I thought that sounded a little easier for me.?

The meat-judging season has two parts, three contests in fall and three in spring.

?The spring season is over now, then we?ll start again in the fall,? Fish said.

The fall season ends with the national championship in Plainview, Texas.

?Everyone goes,? he said of national event. ?They just designated one (contest) as the national championship. That could be the only contest you win all year, and you?ll still be national champion.?

Media attention

Meat-judging as a competitive sport has tickled the interest of some East Coast media, particularly after the Wall Street Jour?nal published a feature about the Garden City team late last fall.

?That kind of led to other papers calling our coach, wanting to know what meat judging is,? Fish said. ?It?s kind of been a laugh between us on the team because nobody (in the media) knows what it is.

?A couple of (East Coast) guys came out and we showed them one of the small packing plants in Garden City,? he added. ?Their eyes were huge, like, ?What is going on here???

The Garden City team includes males and females who hail from California, to Nebraska to Kansas. Most of them, like Fish, come to the program with FFA or ag-related experience.

?Most of the people on our team have actually meat-judged in high school,? Fish said. ?I didn?t even know what that was in high school.?

But he said his FFA experience has been helpful.

?I?ve had experience in livestock judging, which is similar?except that the animals are alive when you?re doing it instead of hanging up,? he said.

Like any other sport, meat-judging involved regular practices sessions.

?Basically we do what we do at contests,? Fish said. ?Our coach rails out a class for us. We do a lot of quality and yield rating.

?Yield grading is a lot of calculating the fat and the size of rib-eye,? he added. ?In a cooler, for a beef animal, they?ll cut a slice about halfway up its back so you can see the rib-eye steaks you eat. That way you see the quality of meat.?

An actual contest usually starts at 6:30 or 7 a.m. Depending on the contest, the competition can last most of the day.

?The last contest we were out by 3 p.m.,? Fish said. ?It?s a long day, and it?s cold?we?re always in the coolers. But it?s a fun time.?

Looking ahead

Fish said he has no regrets about switching sports.

?I?m really enjoying it,? he said of meat-judging. ?It?s in the field I want to go into. I?d like to get into meat science and work for the USDA or something in the industry.?

His success this year has caught the attention of several four-year schools.

?I?ve gotten a couple of scholarship offers,? he said. ?Of course, K-State?s my heart. But they?re kind of at a disadvantage because they don?t give out as much scholarship money as Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Colorado State.

?(Those schools) give out really big scholarships for meat-judging.?

The GCCC meat-judging team dates back to 1988, according to the school?s website. Overall, meat judging was started in 1927 as a way for students to utilize industry concepts and equations to compete with other colleges and universities with an animal science curriculum.

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