Pictured at left, Nicholas Ortner is now a coach for the Phillips County livestock judging team.
4-H’er to coach: Livestock judging comes full circle
It’s not every day that you see a recent college graduate prioritizing the next generation, volunteering their time to work with kids. Then again, those that go through 4-H tend to be a breed of their own already, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when they put their hearts and hands into giving back once they reach adulthood.
Over the past decade, Nicholas Ortner has gone from the Challengers 4-H Club to Holyoke High School FFA to Northeastern Junior College to working and volunteering back in Phillips County. One constant that’s been particularly valuable to him through all of that has been livestock judging.
In general, 4-H and FFA gave him plenty of opportunities to learn responsibility, critical thinking, public speaking, leadership and the like, but Ortner credits livestock judging with it the most.
For those unfamiliar with livestock judging, there are four species involved: beef, swine, sheep and goats. Ortner, who grew up on his family farm, was heavily influenced by seeing his parents, Tim and Mariane, raise cattle. As a result, most of his experience in livestock judging involved beef and some swine.
In a 4-H livestock judging competition, there are 10 classes with four animals in each. Members spend about 12 minutes per class evaluating the animals — for either breeding or market — and ranking them first through fourth. Members are also asked to give reasons for their rankings.
Though 4-H members can begin livestock judging at 8 years old, Ortner was closer to 13 when he started because there wasn’t an established program locally. He remembers hearing about a team in Sterling and thinking to himself, “I could do that.” Brandy Miller and Tim Becker became his coaches, and Ortner went on to be involved with livestock through the remainder of his time in 4-H and as a high schooler in FFA.
As a 4-H’er, Ortner spent time as president on the club, county, district and state levels. In FFA, he served as the chapter president and the district sentinel. Still, it was livestock judging that made the biggest impact. During his senior year of high school, Ortner was contacted by Randell Von Krosigk, the NJC livestock judging coach at the time, about being on his team.
Ortner made the decision to compete on the college level while he studied ag business and animal science. He quickly learned that competition was far more intense than it had been on the 4-H level. Just as a college athlete faces the challenge of balancing schoolwork and sport, Ortner had his fair share of responsibilities to manage.
College competitors have one year of eligibility. Ortner was on the team his first year at NJC, but it wasn’t until his second that he competed in national contests. Doing so took him to such places as Fort Worth, Kansas City, Houston, Louisville, San Antonio and Denver, where his team finished in the top 10. Coming from a small town background, he found it interesting to see how the general principles he learned early on applied to the big picture.
Following his graduation, Ortner returned to Holyoke, where he works on the family farm. He was looking for a way to be involved with the community and give back when he decided to become a coach for Phillips County’s 4-H livestock judging. This season, which runs from March through May, has already seen kids traveling to places like Rocky Ford and Brighton to compete.
The local program has really grown in recent years. A total of 19 from the various 4-H clubs in the county are involved, compared to just a handful about four years ago. Ortner considers himself lucky to work with such a good group of kids that are trying to be the best version of themselves.
Knowing how helpful livestock judging was for him — from forming speaking skills to making his way through college — Ortner thinks it’s great to see kids as young as 8 begin the process. “I know from my personal experience that this program and programs like this can be beneficial,” he added.
Ortner also recognizes the importance of volunteers who make such activities possible and would encourage other adults to give back to the programs that have made a difference in their own lives.
“If you have the skills and ability, and availability,” he said, “I think it’s going to be something you won’t regret.”