Meat judging

Clint Lee knows what he’s looking for when it comes to picking out a steak.

There needs to be a certain redness that suggests a robust, healthy cut of meat, as well as a good bit of meat to fat ratio to yield enough to eat. Fat can be your friend, though, as he scours cuts of ribeye or strip steak for just the right amount of marbling to offer up flavor and tenderness.

It’s safe to say when it’s time to bring his steak to the grill, he’s done his fair share of preparation. 

Of course, enjoying the steak for himself is just a bonus. More often than not this methodical process is all about work, collaborating with his teammates at the University of Georgia’s Meat Judging Team in the midst of a rigorous competition. But whether he’s staring through the counter at his local butcher or trying to add another medal to the Meat Dawgs trophy case, he’s still looking for the same thing.

“A lot of people don’t want any fat at all because they’re thinking they’ve got to be healthy, but I want it to have that cherry red color and the most amount of marbling,” Lee said. “Those white specks inside ribeye add tenderness and deliver a better overall eating experience, so that’s what I’m looking for.”

The keen eyes and focused scrutiny of Lee and his teammates helped welcome back Georgia’s Meat Judging Team in grand fashion, with the team capturing national championship honors at last year’s National High Plains Intercollegiate Meat Judging Contest in Friona, Texas. The squad had been inactive for a decade, only returning to competition in 2022 under the guidance of Anna Scott, a Georgia native who recently returned to her home state after studying at Texas Tech, the standard-bearer for meat judging in the collegiate world.

It’s been an interesting road to the top of one of the more interesting and, yes, peculiar sports in collegiate competitions, and a journey the Meat Dawgs are just beginning to embark on.

“For our team of five, we had gotten close and we were all doing it for each other,” Lee said. “We just wanted to be rewarded as a team, and we were so proud of the title, but we were more so proud of what we had accomplished as a team.”

The journey home

Like many of her classmates and colleagues, Scott’s rural roots run deep. She grew up in the small town of Douglas, Ga., where her family had 120 head of cows. Her father was an agricultural teacher, while her mother grew up on a dairy farm. Today her brother farms more than 1,300 acres of land.

She first ventured into the world of judging at a young age, joining the Future Farmers of America in fifth grade where she learned to show livestock like cattle, steers, goats, sheep, hogs and more. In fact, the most popular forms of judging are consolidated in this particular discipline that deal with, well, live animals. Meat judging, as well as dairy judging, exist in a different spectrum, and Scott pointed out there was a clean divide between the two.

“Livestock judging is what we like to think of as the jocks, right?,” she said with a laugh. “They do the cool stuff that everyone sees every day, such as roping. I used to make fun of the meat kids, to be honest, and then I became a meat kid myself.”

Like many students on the East Coast who are interested in pursuing careers in the livestock industry, she went out west, attending a two-year junior college, Connors State College in Warner, Ok., before moving on to Texas Tech.

It was in Lubbock, Tx., where she found herself looking for some additional money to cover the costs of finishing up her degree. One of her professors asked her if she would be interested in joining the university’s meat judging team.

She laughed.

“Livestock judging is what we like to think of as the jocks, right? They do the cool stuff that everyone sees every day, such as roping. I used to make fun of the meat kids, to be honest, and then I became a meat kid myself.”

Anna Scott

Now, the thing you need to understand about Texas Tech is that it’s the standard bearer of meat judging in the collegiate world. Think of Alabama’s recent run in college football or UCLA’s dominance in college basketball during the 1960s and 1970s, and then take that up a few notches.

Since 1989, Texas Tech has captured an astonishing 15 national championships, including three straight from 2019-2021, overlapping some of those titles with Scott’s tenure at the school. The Red Raiders did so courtesy of what some would consider a ruthless commitment to excellence that was instilled in them by Dr. Mark Miller, the coach at the helm of this dynasty. 

For instance, Scott noted the team would embrace “Friona Fridays” where they’d visit a Cargill plant in the small town of Friona, Tx., and work on various cuts of beef every Friday night. At 5 a.m. the next morning, they’d be back at school to embark on a 16-hour day of practice on beef, pork and lamb.

There was a standard to uphold at Texas Tech, and those long hours demonstrated the team’s commitment to doing so.

“I understand that we don’t do the same amount of physical effort as, say, the football team or things like that, but I would be willing to bet we put in as many hours in a week,” Scott said.

Building a team from scratch

As her time at Texas Tech began to wind down, Scott was exploring ways to further her education. That’s when she was approached by Dean Pringle, a professor at Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who posed an intriguing question – if she was interested in coming back home to pursue a master’s degree, would she be open to restarting the long dormant meat judging program at the school?

She agreed, though what may have sounded like an exciting challenge in the abstract, in reality it proved to be more of a grind than she likely anticipated.

Photo courtesy of UGA Meat Dawgs

First off, she had to actually find the students to fill out the team. To do so, Scott sent an email out to every student enrolled at UGA’s Department of Animal Sciences, as well as spread the word in person through her teaching obligations and other various speaking commitments. 

Of course, those who were interested also had to buy into the program. Having been trained at Texas Tech and understanding what goes into building a championship squad, Scott had high expectations for those who wanted to be a part of the initial team.

“It was kind of frustrating at first because there was no culture,” Scott said. “You had to find a group of students who wanted to mimic that culture and wanted to be part of that culture we had at Texas Tech. They realized that if this is something we want to do, this is the standard we have to hold ourselves to.”

That meant early morning practice sessions, additional study that went above and beyond existing classroom obligations and a relentless pursuit of perfection. Scott was demanding, but she also was fervently committed to those who wanted to take this journey with her.

It’s a commitment that connected with her teammates.

“The biggest thing with her is she brought the fire and passion to start the team,” Lee said. “We had not had someone in the past who was willing to go the extra mile by building the team, making sure we’re practicing, finding contests for us to compete in, and she has done that for us. 

“Seeing her passion for meat judging has given us a passion for meat judging.”

Overcoming regional challenges

Part of the reason schools like Texas Tech have traditionally done so well is because of geography. The vast open fields of the Midwest and Plains states encourage more grazing opportunities for herds of cattle, and an entire industry has evolved around it.

There are farms to offer the cattle home and production facilities to process the meat.

In the Southeast, the agricultural industry is more geared toward crops, such as peanuts or blueberries, while most livestock production is centered around poultry. Calves that are born in Georgia are sent to Oklahoma or Kansas to be fed.

“They have a lot of packing plants out there where they can go in and see a carcass in front of them,” Lee said. “Those teams can go into those facilities and practice more regularly than we can.”

As such, the reason Scott first made her way out west to study was the same reason that made the maintenance of a meat judging team at Georgia so difficult. While she was able to embrace those early morning sessions at a production facility, allowing her to sharpen her skills and foster a sense of community among her Red Raider teammates, that simply wasn’t possible at a school based in Athens, Ga.

“We don’t have the same opportunities they do, but it’s all how you take advantage of the opportunities you do have.”

Clint Lee

To get around this challenge, the newly formed team turned to technology.

iCEV is a popular digital learning platform regularly used by colleges and universities, particularly to engage remote learning students. It enables educators to customize learning programs that blend face-to-face instruction with digital teaching modules that let students learn at their own pace.

Rather than study calculus or history, however, the Meat Dawgs set out to better understand what to look for in a cut of meat.

“It has some previous competition judges and coaches there who put classes together using cameras,” Lee said. “We do a lot of digital learning, and it’s not very common in meat judging.”

The team was able to pair its crafted learning module with in-person experiences at the UGA Meat Science Technology Center, which is part of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. It is a fully functional meat processing facility that butchers and sells a collection of cuts to the public, offering the squad the ability to get their hands dirty, so to speak, and enhance their practice sessions.

Bringing home a championship

As the national championships drew closer, the pressure began to build.

“We definitely got a few looks and “oh, are the Georgia kids gonna be any good” comments,” Lee said. “And, to be fair, we were saying the same thing. We don’t have the same opportunities they do, but it’s all how you take advantage of the opportunities you do have.”

The American Meat Science Association oversees the most well-known and prestigious meat judging competitions at the intercollegiate level, including the national championships, dividing teams into Division A and Division B. The more experienced squads compete in the latter, enabling the former to serve as a stepping stone for programs that are newly formed and just returning to competition.

“It would be like Valdosta State deciding it wanted to compete in the SEC, in that it would be overwhelming for them,” Scott said.

Photo courtesy of Clint Lee

Given that it was Georgia’s first year back, the team set out to make a name for itself in Division B, working through various cuts and assigning scores just as they had practiced both in-person and through their digital learning modules.

After all the teams had wrapped up, the winners would be announced during a banquet at the end of the night. While the Meat Dawgs were confident in their performance, they were still a bit unsure how well they had done.

“We’re adding up our scores, so we already knew what we had and we knew it was a good score, but we didn’t know if we could win though,” Lee said. “There were a ton of nerves on our part. They had an amazing dinner that night, but I’m not going to lie, I don’t think I ate but three bites of it.”

The nerves were understandable, but unnecessary as the Meat Dawgs captured the crown.

The title capped off a successful season for Georgia, which tallied two other first place finishes and three additional top three finishes in 2022. It was an unreal run for a program in its first year back at the competitive level, but it also meant a little more than simply the chance to hold on to bragging rights for the next 12 months.

In the traditional sports world, the NCAA prides itself on the academic prowess and professional success of its student-athletes, noting that most of them find career success in a field outside of their preferred sport. In the world of meat judging, it’s the opposite, and that’s exactly what those students are seeking.

Scott pointed out that large production companies, such as Tyson and Cargill, often sponsor some of the most prominent competitions on the schedule. It’s designed to not only ensure the competition can move forward, but also for those businesses to identify the next generation of industry professionals.

“The Tysons and Cargills and others are going to teach those students what they need to know whether they’re in a meat judging program or not,” she said. “But, if they’ve been a part of that program, they know those students are willing to wake up early in the morning, work long hours, maintain a work-life balance, work with a team, and have a genuine interest in our industry.”

As the 2023 season is underway, Lee is now serving as an assistant coach to Scott on the team, doing his part to ensure the Meat Dawgs continue their winning ways. Just this past week, they finished third overall at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, winning the lamb judging competition.

A new standard is being set in Athens, and their coach is embracing it and the parallels that come with such success.

“I have to see if I can beat Dr. Miller at Texas Tech, right?,” Scott laughed. “In a Sports Illustrated article, they called him the Nick Saban of meat judging, so being the Kirby Smart of meat judging wouldn’t be that bad.”

This isn’t our first rodeo with meat. Check out the story of Cotten’s Bar-B-Que and Joe’s memories from the restaurant.

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Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.