The Hidden Costs of Political Bias in Livestock Shows

rhdRHD Blog

By Rachel Cutrer

In the seemingly peaceful world of stock shows, where exhibitors gather to showcase the fruits of their labor, there lurks a pervasive issue that undermines the integrity of the stock show industry: political bias in judging. We’ve seen it for centuries – as long as there is a subjective human element in judging – there will always be political bias. But, it’s a topic that always is a welcomed discussion – especially during the time of year where many large shows are being held nationwide.

For those who have poured their time, resources, and passion into raising top-quality livestock, the frustration, discouragement, and confusion that arise from political judgments can be overwhelming.

Thankfully, many of today’s major stock shows do a tremendous job in selecting and vetting judges that uphold the standards of integrity that our youth exhibitors and adult breeders deserve. However, even despite their best efforts to avoid any bias, occasionally it does find it’s way into the inner circle.

Picture this: breeders, both seasoned veterans and eager newcomers, converge at a showground, each hoping to have their meticulously groomed stock recognized for their excellence. Behind the scenes, however, alliances are formed, favors are exchanged, and financial influence sways the decisions of judges. Instead of rewarding merit and adherence to industry standards, cattle are selected based on personal connections or financial transactions, leaving breeders disheartened and questioning the fairness of the competition.

What good does that do for the industry?

Discrediting Our Producer Educational System

One thing that makes political judging particularly disheartening is the way it undermines the significant educational efforts so many associations, universities, and trade organizations work so hard to achieve. Each year, there is a significant investment made by breeders in education and conferences aimed at promoting best practices and industry trends. Millions of dollars are spent on youth education, extension education and producer conferences, all with the goal of equipping breeders with the knowledge and skills to raise livestock that meet the demands of the market. Yet, when judges disregard these standards in favor of personal biases, the very purpose of these educational efforts is undermined.

Discouraging to New Breeders

The repercussions of political bias extend far beyond individual breeders. They have a ripple effect that impacts the entire future of the industry. Newcomers, eager to enter the world of livestock breeding, are discouraged by the perceived lack of fairness and equal opportunity in competitions. They witness breeders receiving preferential treatment based on factors unrelated to the quality of their livestock, and they question whether they stand a chance in such an environment. If this happens enough, they’ll simply exit the business. Without a steady influx of new breeders, the industry stagnates, deprived of fresh ideas, innovation, and vitality.

International Concerns of Political Judging

And finally, the ramifications of political bias in livestock show judging casts a shadow of doubt over the international beef industry.  International breeders look to renowned shows in the U.S. as benchmarks of quality. When these events are marred by favoritism, it not only undermines the credibility of American breeders but also raises doubts about the integrity of the entire industry. Inconsistency in judging can erode trust and confidence in USA genetics amongst international stakeholders, potentially hampering collaboration and trade relationships crucial for the growth and sustainability of the USA beef industry.

Working Together to Create Trust and Confidence in Judges

So, what can be done to address this problem? First and foremost, I applaud the many show officials, 4-H and FFA leaders, and breed associations who are committed to fair play. As a parent of a young exhibitor at the Texas majors, I have extreme confidence in the selection process and practices in place to select judges when the stakes are the highest. I truly believe that while politics in judging occurs from time to time, we’ve made big progress and it happens less often than people may think. Judges who have a reputation of unethical behavior are being replaced by confident, fair judges.

I believe there has also been significant improvement in the transparency and accountability in the judging process and judging expectations. I am confident in the new generation of judges coming down the pipeline that maintain high standards of integrity and refuse to be bullied. Clear criteria, detailed judging contracts outlining acceptable and unacceptable practices help ensure that conflicts of interest are avoided and decisions are based on objective standards rather than personal biases. 

Additionally, it is also very encouraging to see diversity in the pool of judges, reducing the likelihood of favoritism or conflicts of interest. As a parent and exhibitor at open shows, I enjoy exhibiting under judges from different breeds, different geographic areas, and with different points of view – so long as they all judge with integrity.

A Word of Encouragement to Judges

To the judges tasked with evaluating livestock shows, recognize the weight of your responsibility and the privilege bestowed upon you. Despite the inevitable barrage of pressures – from phone calls and emails to social media posts and manipulation attempts – you must rise above.

Whether presiding over a small county fair or the grandest show in the nation, a judges primary duty remains unchanged: to judge fairly and impartially. You were selected not for your connections or popularity but for your expertise. Remember, your decisions not only shape the outcomes of individual competitions but also influence the perception of the entire livestock community. Rise above the noise, focus on the stock before you, and let fairness and merit guide your placings. That, after all, is why you were chosen.

I read just a few days ago that at the 2024 San Antonio Stock Show, over 10,000 youth exhibitors will compete. I’d venture to say that the majority of these didn’t grow up on a ranch or farm. And, I’d also venture to say that the majority of these are not going to return to production agriculture. But, each one of them will be a spokesperson for agriculture. Each one of them will ultimately help build the future of agriculture and the future of livestock shows.

Livestock shows are changing. Fairs and events will always be part of America’s heritage. But, the livestock departments continue to fight to schedule spots and square footage amongst concerts, rodeos, shopping, food courts, and other fair attractions. Ultimately, the future of the livestock industry depends on its ability to uphold integrity and fairness in all aspects of competition and to develop young people in a positive way.

By standing up for integrity in all aspects of stock show competitions, we can reclaim the essence of what makes the stock shows noble: a dedication to excellence and a commitment to the well-being of our animals. And, by doing that, livestock shows can continue to truly serve as a platform for celebrating the achievements of breeders, exhibitors, and advancing the agriculture industry as a whole.