The sight of a big-eyed, wet-nosed cow grazing in a field is more than just a pretty picture for Rebecca Hamilton. The 17-year-old Lisbon resident automatically starts evaluating the shape of its back, the muscles in its legs and the "spring" of its ribs.
As a competitor in livestock judging since she was 8 years old, Hamilton said of herself and others in the activity, "Now we can't look at cows and see cows, we see the [little] things about them."
Having excelled at judging the size, shape, girth and gait of animals at county, state and national competitions, Hamilton and Maria Stevens, 17, of Woodsboro in Frederick County will compete tomorrow in an international beef judging contest in Scotland.
The two earned their bids to the annual Royal Highland Show by being part of the four-member Maryland team that placed third at the national 4-H livestock judging competition in Louisville, Ky., in November.
Another team member, Ben Warfield, 19, of Marriottsville, will take part in the Shorthorn Junior National competition in Des Moines, Iowa, instead of the Scotland contest. But he will join the women after their competition for a nearly two-week tour of Europe, which will include a tour of a John Deere plant in Germany, sightseeing in England and a vegetable auction in Belgium.
Lindsay Smith of West Friendship was the fourth member of the team to earn a bid to Scotland, but the 17-year-old chose not to go.
In livestock judging, the judges - not the animals - have to make the grade.
In some rounds, they have 12 minutes to decide how to place the animals from first to fourth based on a variety of structural factors that contribute to the animal's value - such things as strong muscles on a cow, sheep or pig raised for its meat, or a deep abdomen on an animal used for breeding.
In other rounds, after the competitors choose the animals' placement, they have to explain their reasoning in a clear and persuasive way.
It takes years of practice for young people to become familiar enough with animals and confident enough in themselves to consistently score well on the ranking and reasoning portions, Stevens said.
They study slides and books, practice as many as two times a week and attend local competitions all summer. Some, including the three who are going to Europe, attend livestock judging camps.
The three who are traveling also raised $30,000 for the trip to Europe by writing letters and asking for donations.
That kind of dedication is more common - and more commonly applauded - in the Midwest, said Willard Lemaster, superintendent of the national 4-H livestock judging contest and a 4-H animal science extension specialist for the University of Maryland.
But, he said, Maryland's programs have steadily drawn a comitted group of youths, and competitors have been showing a lot of skill and poise in recent years.
Between 11 and 14 counties send teams to the state contest, Lemaster said, and recently there has been a strong pool of talent in Central Maryland, including Howard, Carroll, Montgomery and Frederick counties. Queen Anne's, Charles and Baltimore County also regularly send strong teams to the state contest.
After the county teams compete, the top performers compete individually for spots on the state team, regardless of their home county.
This year, the Maryland team of Hamilton, Stevens, Warfield and Smith earned a top-three placement at the national contest for the first time in recent memory.
The current team stands out, Lemaster said, because of "their intelligence, their attitudes. They're driven, but by the same token, they were team members. They all got along well."
Stevens said, "We wanted to show we were as good as the Midwest states. Everyone thinks the East Coast can't compete."
Chris Mullinix, one of the Maryland team's coaches, agreed.
"Our program in the state of Maryland is probably stronger than a lot of people give it credit for," he said.
Mullinix grew up in Howard County, but he teaches livestock judging at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan. - one of many Midwest schools offering livestock judging scholarships. He flies to Maryland to coach the Howard County team during the summer and leads the state team after it is chosen.
Warfield said he likes judging competitively "because it's individual." Unlike animal shows, in which success relies on having good animals, in livestock judging "you control what you can do."
Hamilton added that you don't need much money, equipment or organized teams to learn the activity. "You just have to have the work ethic and the drive to make yourself better," she said.
Mullinix said one of the biggest challenges for youth "is realizing that it's not a perfect science. ... It requires subjectivity. It requires a young person to look at things and realize, 'I'm not going to be right all the time.' That's a tough thing for a competitive team."
But, he said, participants develop the ability to think quickly, defend a position and articulate their thoughts, and "those skills are invaluable."
As the teenagers prepared for their trip, their coaches said they are giving the next group of aspiring champions something to shoot for.
"I'm hoping it gives [younger competitors] a challenge," said Kathy Gordon, a Frederick County 4-H volunteer who is also coaching the team heading to Scotland. "They see what happens when you work hard. ... I'm hoping it inspires them to do well this year."