A heavy downpour delayed the start of the contest an hour. The students
then put on all the rain gear they could find and trudged through the
mud and muck without complaint.
NRCS Soil Scientist Troy Collier, of Woodward, tries to keep a trench in
as good of shape as possible during the soil judging competition.
This contestant rubs the muddy soil between her fingers to help
Contestants waded through nearly knee-deep water in some of the soil
This student carefully studies one of the plants staked in the plant
identification part of the contest.
Garbage bags and Ziploc bags were common forms of rain gear during the
competition. The FFA member on the right has his official FFA uniform
on, complete with a tie, along with this cowboy slicker to keep dry.
Several first-time participants got their feet wet at the 57th annual
National Land and Range Judging Contest, held for high school FFA and
4-H teams May 5-7 near El Reno, Oklahoma.
Actually all the 1,000-plus students, rookies and seasoned pros,
literally got their feet wet in the nearly 2.5” of rain that fell on the
contest site on May 7. This year, the contest could have been re-named
the “Mud and Droopy Wet Plant Judging Contest” due to the heavy
Over 170 teams of teenage FFA and 4-H traveled far and wide from 35
states, including Hawaii, to vie for top honors in the historic
competition. Contest officials delayed the contest approximately one
hour to allow the most intense part of the storm to pass.
Slip Slidin’ Away
After the heaviest showers subsided, students emerged from school buses
and vans clad in cowboy slickers, ponchos, rubber boots, garbage bags,
Ziploc bags and anything else they could find to keep the rain off their
backs and protect their contest papers. They carefully navigated slick
trails of the contest site, a couple of them even on crutches from
previous leg injuries.
The 4-H and FFA participating teams qualified for the national event by
placing among the top five teams at contests held in their home states.
The teams match skills in judging the adaptability of land for various
purposes including farming, range management, and homesite construction.
An adult category is provided to allow coaches, team alternates and
others interested in soil to compete.
However, the rain and mud made this event different than most contests
the students had participated in before. The trenches dug so
participants could examine subsoil profiles, held standing water up to
their knees in some cases.
When asked how the rain was affecting the contest, Caleb Miller, an FFA
student from Burns High School in North Carolina replied, “This is a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. We have studied too hard and came
too far to let a little rain bother us.”
Contest volunteers and officials were impressed by the students’ good
attitude about the wet conditions.
“These kids have trudged in and out of these deep, wet soil trenches
over and over and I haven’t heard one complaint,” said Troy Collier,
NRCS Soil Scientist in Woodward, Oklahoma. Collier was one of 40
Oklahoma NRCS employees that worked at the competition for several days.
The idea of a land judging contest was invented by three Oklahoma
conservationists in 1942. They decided which soil qualities could be
judged and developed score cards to test skills. The idea caught on and
Oklahoma Conservation Commission has been hosting the national contest
in Oklahoma City since 1952. NRCS has been an integral part of the
national contest by working with local landowners to secure locations
for these contests, as well as providing equipment and expertise at the
Making it Happen behind the Scenes
While the judging is held the final day of the contest, the first two
days of the competition are set aside for teams to practice and learn
about Oklahoma plants and soil types. NRCS employees set up practices
sites for contestants to practice and are available to teach teams and
In the range part of the competition, students not only learn how to
identify plants, but must also be able to provide specific plant
characteristics, such as growth habit and uses for wildlife and
livestock. Three additional sites are setup to teach students how to
evaluate plant community composition and conduct evaluations for quail
habitat and for beef production. Students are taught how to plan
management practices based on different objectives.
“The range contest is designed to teach students about native ecosystems
and their values, with a focus on plant identification and the roles
they play,” explains Steve Glasgow, NRCS State Grazing Lands Specialist
NRCS soil scientists assisted the students and instructors in
understanding soil properties and how those properties affect different
land management uses.
According to NRCS State Soil Scientist Jim Ford, the soil properties or
factors that are examined from the field and soil profile are: surface
and subsoil texture, soil depth, surface thickness, erosion, surface
runoff, soil structure, slope and permeability.
“The students have to understand that water and air movement through the
soil is affected by a combination of soil texture, soil structure and
consistency,” Ford says. “Soil depth has a large impact on rooting depth
and water holding capacity of the soil.”
Students rub the soil between their fingers to determine soil texture,
which affects how easy the soil can be worked, as well as water intake
and runoff. The students also learn how to determine the slope of the
land, which can effect runoff and cause erosion.
During the contest, the goal of each student is to judge the soil and
field area in order to determine its best use as agricultural land and
also for homesite. After determining the soil properties/factors, they
must determine the capability class and which/if any of these factors
are limiting and keep the land from being in Class I land. Then they
must determine the most appropriate vegetative and mechanical treatments
to manage the land properly and what fertilizer or other amendments are
needed for adequate plant growth.
“This knowledge and understanding is used not only for this contest but
is taken back home, to the farm or ranch,” Glasgow says. “Due to this
exposure, many of these young people may pursue careers in range or
wildlife or even NRCS.”
Oklahoma NRCS employees endured the elements alongside the students on
the final judging day of the contest as they monitored each evaluation
site where the students competed.
And The Scores Were Tallied
The event ended on the evening of May 7 with an awards banquet in the
Great Hall of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum when the
day's results were announced. Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins
gave the keynote address before the awards presentation began. National
championship trophies were awarded to team and individual winners in
each category of competition including land judging, range judging, and
homesite evaluation. Each category included FFA and 4-H.
In Land Judging, FFA competition, the Pleasant Hope, Missouri chapter,
won in the team category and the first place individual winner was Emily
Cashman, Montezuma, Indiana. In the 4-H competition the Medina County,
Hondo, Texas, chapter, was the winning team, and Dustin Lilie of that
team was the individual winner.
In the Range category, the Gans, Oklahoma chapter won the FFA team
competition, and Daniel Merrill of that team took the first place
individual FFA award. The Butte, Newell, South Dakota chapter won the
4-H team category, and Sammi Shaykett of that team, placed first in the
Finally, in Homesite Evaluation, the Oklahoma Union, South Coffeyville,
Oklahoma, chapter won the FFA team competition, and Justin Van Brundt,
New Orleans, Indiana, took the first place individual FFA award. The
Hamilton Southeastern, Denver, Indiana, chapter won the 4-H team
category, and Chelbey Welchel, Fisher, Indiana, placed first in the