BOZEMAN – After a lapse of more than two decades, Montana State University resurrected its wool judging team last year.
It was a timely move that happened to coincide with the growing demand for Montana wool, said coach Lisa Surber. And now the team is competing for a national championship.
Three members of this year’s team – most from small Montana towns – will head to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo over spring break and compete on St. Patrick’s Day. Each student will have 12 minutes to grade and rank fleeces in each of eight categories, Surber said. Then, speaking without notes, they’ll explain their decisions to the judges, giving three sets of reasons per category.
The judges will score their performance, then combine the results with scores from the National Western Judging Contest to determine the overall winner, Surber said. That contest took place Jan. 16 in Denver. Since MSU took fifth there, Surber is optimistic about their chances after Houston.
“If we do well at Houston, then we have a good possibility of ranking nationally,” she said.
This year’s team consists of Sarah Boyer of Livingston, a sophomore in agriculture relations; Rebecca Gibbs of Circle, a postbaccalaureate student in biotechnology; Leah Nelson of Opheim, a senior in animal science; and Andrew Seleg of Forsyth, a junior in animal science. All but Gibbs will compete in Houston.
Assistant coaches are Karoline Rose of Three Forks, a senior in animal science, and Kendall Green of Cohagen, a junior in ag business and son of Mike Green, a member of MSU’s 1990 wool judging team. Rose and Kendall Green both competed last year, but they are coaching their successors because students can only compete one season on a wool judging team.
Wool judging teams have three competitions available to them during the school year, Surber said. In addition to Denver and Houston is a contest in San Antonio.
The students prepare all school year, Rose said. At least twice a week, team members head into the Quonset hut behind MSU’s Wool Lab to practice judging some of the 70 or 80 fleeces that are stored there. Whenever they have time, perhaps while they’re riding together in a car, they practice giving reasons for their decisions.
“The pressure is on,” Rose said.
Surber said the opportunity to participate on a judging team benefits MSU students by developing their public speaking skills and expanding their knowledge about wool. Both are important for careers in agriculture, she added.
She noted that the demand for Montana wool is up, mainly because of a resurgence in the high-quality sock and knitwear industries.
“Our wool seems to have more loft, more resistance to compression,” Surber said. “That’s a really desirable trait in socks and knitwear.”
MSU went 21 years without a wool judging team before one returned in 2012-13. A photo of the last team before the gap – the team of 1991 – still hangs on a wall in the Wool Lab. It shows John Mackin, Sievert Mysse, Mike Schuldt and coach Cheryl Houglund. Schuldt and Houglund later married, showing another potential benefit of belonging to a wool judging team, Surber said.
Surber attributes the wool judging lapse to busy schedules for potential coaches and a lack of student interest. She credits renewed interest and outside encouragement for the reinstatement.
“Nationally, the number of schools with collegiate wool judging teams was shrinking,” Surber said. “We were encouraged by national sheep organizations to get involved again.”
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org