An eye for judging livestock

Dillon Sheiss looking at a cow in a show ring.
Dillon Sheiss has garnered several top livestock judging awards over the years, with his success and skills gaining the attention of Will Taylor, Iowa State's livestock judging team coach. Sheiss was recruited by Taylor to join Iowa State's team.

By Riley Hiscocks

Growing up on a diversified crop and livestock farm in Larwill, Indiana, Dillon Sheiss, junior in animal science, cultivated his passion for livestock judging. With both parents reaching success at the collegiate livestock judging level at Penn State, Sheiss knew he wanted to follow in their footsteps.

He began his livestock judging career in sixth grade as a part of his school district’s livestock judging program, which includes students in sixth through 12th grades. In conjunction with the Future Farmers of America program, the team traveled to junior college and state contests in Indiana, along with contests in Denver, Colorado, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Dillon Sheiss holding and speaking into a microphone
Dillon Sheiss

Sheiss earned All-American status at the North American Livestock Exposition as a freshman in high school. This award recognizes students who have excelled in livestock judging, academic performance, university and industry activities and community service.

Prior to attending Iowa State University, Sheiss completed his associate degree at Black Hawk College East Campus in Galva, Illinois, where he was recruited by coaches Blake Bloomberg and Tim Hubbard to be a member of the livestock judging team. During his time at Black Hawk, Sheiss compiled an impressive list of awards and honors, including high individual honors at Cattleman's Congress, Dixie National and the National Western Stock Show, along with multiple other top 10 finishes.

Will Taylor, Iowa State’s livestock judging team coach, reached out to Sheiss and fellow Black Hawk Community College students about visiting Iowa State’s campus to further discuss the livestock judging team.

“The recruitment process at Iowa State involves me identifying students who have excellent backgrounds in competitive livestock or who have excelled in junior collegiate judging,” Taylor said. “Dillon and his junior college teammates fit both of those descriptions, so I reached out to the group from Black Hawk College East Campus and brought them to campus. They had been members of one of the most successful junior collegiate judging teams of all time. We talked about our program at Iowa State, the process that we believe in, the strong academics, and the culture of the team.”

“Will was one of the first coaches to reach out to me. He seemed genuinely interested in me as a person,” Sheiss said.

Sheiss explained there are two parts to a livestock judging competition - placing (ranking) the livestock and giving oral reasons for the placing. Explaining the reason for the livestocks’ placement within the class is a competitor’s opportunity to convince contest officials why their placing is logical. Competitors are scored on a variety of factors, including accuracy of statements, correct vocabulary of livestock terminology and clear enunciation.

It can seem like a tedious and time consuming task, but Sheiss has enjoyed learning “how to play the game.”

“Each class is worth 50 points, and all classes contain four animals with three different cuts. Each individual gives eight sets of reasons worth 50 points each, which are then scored by contest officials,” Sheiss said. “The officials make set placings for classes with cuts, and the closer you are to the official’s placings, the higher your score is. The highest score wins.”

Sheiss said every contest is different based on factors such as the heritage, culture and location of the livestock judging contest.

“There is a certain dynamic to a class when judging, and this is based on the priorities that you have to judge off of. You are thrown different types and kinds of animals all of the time, and you have to take every bias you have and throw it out the window,” Sheiss said.

With competitions typically lasting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m, mental strength and perseverance are necessary skills that competitors must possess.

“If you don’t love to do it, it might seem boring,” Sheiss said.

The Iowa State University Livestock Judging Team is just beginning its 2022-23 season. With competitions nearly every single month of the year in states across the country, Sheiss remains busy with extracurricular activities and academics.

“Dillon brings to our team incredible judging experience, a great eye for livestock, and the ability to give reasons. His greatest asset will be his leadership as he comes to us on one of the deepest teams that Iowa State has seen in years, and he will help lead a group of students who have been incredibly successful,” Taylor said.

As an animal science student, Sheiss is furthering his knowledge of livestock by completing courses covering topics such as livestock disease prevention and domestic animal physiology.

“Livestock evaluation is the main course that prepares students for judging. It consists of breeding animal and market animal evaluation along with practicing communication and decision-making skills,” Sheiss said. “It can be challenging to balance school work and traveling for the judging team. As long as the teacher is willing to work with the student, it can be a bit of a balancing act, but it usually all works out.”

Upon graduation from Iowa State in 2024, Sheiss plans to pursue a livestock judging team coaching position while continuing to be involved with his family’s crop and livestock operation.