Four Lancaster County teens — friends and longtime 4-H members — capped an exciting six months of 4-H livestock judging with a top 10 finish in national competition at the North American International Livestock Exposition, or NAILE, on Nov. 13 in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Lancaster team scored 2,481 points to the 2,542 points gained for winners from Illinois, a good score that achieved ninth place among 33 teams from the nation. Team member Leah Welk, a senior at Lampeter-Strasburg High School, followed up her top individual finish at the Pennsylvania state competition in July, winning 15th overall in individual scoring at the nationals. She was named an All American award winner.

Welk had set a goal to finish in the top 20 in the individual competition.

“I was pleased with my individual finish,” Welk said, “and equally excited for our team finishing in the top 10 against national competition.”

Besides Welk, 17, the Lancaster 4-H team members included Emma Musser, 17, an Elizabethtown High School junior; her sister, Madeline “Maddie” Musser, 19, a freshman at Penn State Harrisburg; and Jacob Snavely, 15, a Manheim Central High School sophomore.

The 4-H judging was one of the highlights of the two-week-long NAILE. The team had earlier earned the right to compete nationally against other state championship teams by winning the Pennsylvania 4-H livestock judging contest at Penn State, and besting 14 teams from across the state.

The icing on the cake at the state championship was the one-two high individual points finish by Welk and Maddie Musser. Emma Musser was 10th and Snavely, 18th, at the event. They competed head-to-head against three dozen individuals representing 4-H teams from around Pennsylvania.

The Lancaster team credited their volunteer coaches in preparing them to compete on the national stage. The coaches are all veterans of livestock competition on the local, regional and national level, as teens and college students.

“They worked extremely hard since spring, and improved their judging skills,” said coach Adam Zurin, who with wife, Dani Zurin, and Johanna Rohrer, are the team’s coaches and mentors.

In preparation for the contest in Louisville, the team said they traveled to Maryland and Harrisburg (for the Keystone International Livestock Exhibition).

“The team had strong individual and team results in the four events leading up to Louisville,” Zurin continued, “and it was exciting to watch them have such a solid performance at the nationals, their last event as 4-H youth.”

In livestock judging, there is both team and individual competition. The team award is based on the total scores of each individual’s judging in the ring as well as knowledge in one-on-one discussions with officials — at times stressful — called oral reasons.

In oral reasons, competitors justify their livestock evaluations to professional judge-officials. Although the competitors may take notes in the ring as they judge each class, the notes cannot be referred to when they take part in oral reasoning.

“You must be on your game,” Emma Musser said, “and that means sometimes you sound like an excited, used car salesman.”

“In judging,” explained coach Rohrer, “you can have a great day and sometimes not so great a day in the ring. So, having the oral reasons portion of the competition gives you a chance to showcase your knowledge and understanding of the breeds you are questioned on.”

Participants in 4-H and FFA livestock judging typically have been raising animals in a farm environment from as early as age 8 and have shown animals from lambs and goats to hogs and cattle. They are exposed to livestock judging at an early age and if they show an interest in it, can take livestock judging preparation courses at their 4-H club. But they must study hard to rise to an advanced level of competition, learning all the animal breeds and criteria.

The Lancaster team joined together in the spring, but all had been involved in judging for several years. As a team, they embarked on a six-month journey of livestock review and practical work. They studied the breeds they would judge and competed in local and regional events that led up to the Pennsylvania state championship.

Team members explained that there are 12 classes (each individual judges every class) and they have to be fully familiar with judging breeding and market beef cattle, sheep, swine and goats. “We need to know just what makes a good animal, genetically,” Welk said, “and then what are the characteristics that distinguish it from other animals of that breed.”

The coaches prepared the team for the fact that part of livestock judging is pretty subjective and even regional. It is important to have an idea about anything judges may be looking for when rating livestock.

At the NAILE, competitors judged animals from another part of the country, which was challenging because livestock raised in the Midwest or the West can be different from livestock raised in the East.

So, for a final preparation, the Lancaster coaches arranged for the team to stop at nine farms between Pennsylvania and Kentucky on their way to nationals to give the teen judges one last chance to review what they knew in a final practice.

Livestock judging is a family thing for the team. Leah Welk had a brother, Justin, who was on the 2012 Pennsylvania championship team and her mom has judged at many 4-H events.

“The competition was fierce at Louisville,” Leah Welk said. “We were up against the best young livestock judges in the nation and every point counted. We knew we could hold our own against the best and we did.”

Welk has grown up on the family farm in Strasburg and will attend Penn State at its Berks campus next year. She hopes to continue livestock judging at the collegiate level.

The Mussers’ dad served as a 4-H coach for several years.

Maddie Musser, who has been raising animals since seventh grade, said her goal from the very start of her 4-H career was to make it to Louisville for the nationals.

“I fulfilled my dream and my personal goal in my last year of junior competition,” she said. She plans to continue judging at the college level.

Maddie Musser was runner-up to Welk in individual honors at the state championship and she finished in the top third of individual competitors at the nationals.

“The Lancaster team was not intimidated in Louisville,” she said. “The nationals were pretty much as the coaches had prepared us for. It was a challenge to compete against so many good 4-H livestock judges, but they had to compete against us too.”

Snavely summed up the opportunity to compete in the nationals. “You get one shot at national competition and even though we might be young enough to compete in other state championship events, we aren’t eligible (any longer). A winning team gets one chance to compete at the national event.”

Emma Musser said, “After all of our hard work, it was great to see how well we performed individually and as a team in Louisville. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance correspondent and photojournalist in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.