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Tift County 4-H team named chicken champions

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

When some Tift County 4-H'ers tag along while their parents grocery shop, the stores' meat managers cringe. That's because these kids are national experts when it comes to pointing out high-quality poultry and eggs.

The Tift County 4-H poultry judging team -- Laura Leidner, Samantha Tankersley, Sally Smith and Austin Suggs -- won first place at the National 4-H Poultry and Egg Conference in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 16-17.

Champs again

This was the second time a Tift County team has won the national title. The local team won in 2003, too. Georgia 4-H is a youth development program of the University of Georgia.

"We've had a lot of success over the past few years," said George Lee, a retired UGA Cooperative Extension agent in Crisp County and one of the team's coaches. "When you win big like this, it encourages other kids to join 4-H and to judge poultry."

Competition in 4-H poultry judging is steep at the state level in Georgia. "In a poultry state like Georgia, there are a lot of 4- H poultry judging teams," Lee said. "Georgia is the No. 1 poultry state, but Tift County doesn't really have a lot of poultry. So our team really is unique."

The Georgia team competed against 19 state champion teams from across the United States. But the real competition came from states like Louisiana, Mississippi, California and Arkansas, Lee said.

Critiquing eggs and birds

4-H poultry teams learn to judge laying hens for egg production, market eggs for interior and exterior quality and ready-to-cook poultry for quality.

"When placing birds, they have to know how to look at the bird, observe it," Lee said. "Then they have to grade both eggs and chickens."

The team's coaches teach them by using U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for grading poultry. In real life, USDA poultry graders work in poultry houses.

"Our students are probably trained as well as the USDA graders," he said. "Very few people are skilled in this area. It's pretty unique, and that's what often attracts the kids to it."

Lee and the team's other coaches, Tift County Cooperative Extension agent Brian Tankersley and volunteer Andrea Milton, work with the students several times a week to prepare them for state and national competitions.

"In our state, we have easy access to live birds and fresh eggs that we can use for practicing," he said.

When judging an egg, the 4-H'er enters a dark room and uses a light to inspect the inside of the egg. "This helps you grade the egg and determine whether it's edible," Lee said. "They also judge the broken-out egg in a dish and the shell quality."

When judging live birds, the 4-H'er must be able to know which chicken is the best layer. "Our 4-H'ers can do this by looking at the characteristics of the bird," he said. "They can also determine which bird is no longer laying."

More than just chicken knowlege

Poultry judging doesn't just teach the students about poultry.

"They have to present a set of oral reasons during the competition, so this teaches them defense skills ... public speaking and decision-making skills," Lee said.

At the nationals, the Georgia team placed first in the production hen class, second in market eggs and third in ready-to-cook. Leidner was the top individual overall. Tankersley placed 12th, Smith 13th and Suggs placed 15th.

The Walton County 4-H poultry judging team -- Jacob Brooks, Courtney Brooks, Amy Jamison and Chris Lightfoot -- attended the national conference, too, with their coach, Molly Kimler. They placed fifth in the 14-team national avian bowl contest.

"Some of the kids may not want to admit (that they're poultry judges) around their peers," Lee said. "In reality, they're pretty proud of their knowledge. And winning a national title of any kind is just phenomenal."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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