This summer, University of Wyoming’s meat judging team had the opportunity of a lifetime—the chance to attend Australia’s Intercollegiate Meat Judging Association (ICMJ) Wagga Conference in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.
Meat judging is a unique extracurricular. In the United States, students start training in November for a season that begins in January. For one year, each student is eligible to participate in national competitions where they rank cuts of meat. In different divisions, they might assess the amount of marbling present or grade beef carcasses according to USDA standards. Those students who most accurately assess the cut’s qualities can place in a division, and the team whose members collectively do the best win the competition.
But Australia’s international competition is different, and it’s not just the cuts. Though Australia does have different standards for judging a piece of meat, the biggest difference is the culture.
Australia’s meat judging culture is focused on career development and finding a job. Most of the Australian students had been intermittently studying meat judging for two months and were in their final year of university. The contest was a bonus, rather than the core of their meat-judging experience.
Many of the Australian students were blown away by the UW team’s focus and intensity during the competition. “Some of Australians were really nervous. I think they really valued seeing the US students be in a mindset and just compete,” says McKensie Phillips, UW collegiate meat judging team coordinator.
Several students professed a desire to go back to Australia, and that’s not surprising. Within minutes of arriving at the conference, several Australian meat judging students came over and introduced themselves. The UW team got to know 95 percent of the other students participating in the conference, and have stayed in touch since. Haley Rutsch, an animal and veterinary sciences major, even mentioned that she’s going to ship snacks to some of her new Australian friends soon. “They’ll get to experience Twinkies,” she says.
In 2022, UW didn’t have a meat judging team. The “comeback tour” in 2023 started strong, with ten students joining UW’s meat judging team in a state where the norm is five to seven. The team won the final spring competition at Iowa State University after months of individual and team successes.
Then, the recently revived team was invited to the ICMJ Wagga Conference. Only one meat judging team from the United States is invited per year, and the UW team last attended in 2010. Every person on the team put in a lot of work to create this opportunity, and their motivation and performance paid off. Rutsch says, “Getting to experience Australia and all it has to offer was amazing, really eye-opening, and our team really benefited.”
The UW team competed against eight Australian teams. Four of the nine students who traveled to Australia found out the night before the competition that they would be competing as well, as Australian attendance was lower than anticipated. Even the five students who planned to compete learned most of the Australian standards in the month leading up to the conference and the plane ride there.
Despite this, two UW students placed in a division. Joseph Kennah placed fourth in the beef judging division, and Kara Reynolds placed second in the commercial evaluation division. “It was cool to pick up that much information that quickly. We were there to have fun and learn new things, and I was super thankful for the opportunity,” she says.
For the first few days of the ICMJ conference, students participated in workshops and listened to guest speakers from various
industries. Speakers included graziers, feedlotters, butchers, and even the CEO of Gundagai Meat Processors, a major lamb producer in Australia. Several students emphasized how valuable it was to get a global perspective on industry techniques and technologies.
The presenters didn’t just give students practical meat judging tips or talk about their companies. They consistently brought in professional development and career advice. Abby Vogl, the team’s assistant coach, says, “It was awesome to see the support that industry in Australia gives these students.”
The UW team also got the chance to speak to producers and other employers at the career expo. Every student was approached with at least one career option, and one student received three job offers. Another student is planning to go back to Australia after she graduates in May 2024 and work for an employer she spoke with there. “Any student that went into that career fair could have gotten a job, because the Australian meat industry knows that’s where the talent is,” says Phillips.
Meat judging opens up dozens of career options. The most direct option is working for the USDA, or the Australian equivalent, Meat Standards Australia, but other career paths include nutritional consulting, veterinary science, or becoming a product quality and safety specialist.
Beyond the conference
After the conference and two-day competition, the UW team spent a week visiting agricultural producers and touring the country. Students even toured Gundagai Lamb plant.
Here, too, students noticed cultural differences. Australia is planning to be carbon neutral by 2030, and Vogl comments, “It was really neat to see that all of these big meat companies were conscious of that. They were really concerned for the environment.”
Phillips mentioned that after their experience in Australia, her team is hungry to get to know other U.S. meat judging students better. They have plans to reach out to teams from across the U.S. throughout the fall season.
Phillips is excited about the future of the UW meat judging team, and that seems to be the consensus. Reynolds summarizes, “We got to do so many things together, and I think everyone got something from this trip. We got out of our comfort zones. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
To learn more about meat judging at UW, contact McKensie Phillips at email@example.com or (307) 766-2334.