The best day of his judging career, only four points shy of a 50-year-old record, will be how John Reaves ’24, of Spring, remembers his final competition and being named high individual overall at the National Collegiate Livestock Judging Contest.
Endless hours of practice, thousands of miles logged traveling, and an unwavering belief in shared goals led the Texas A&M University Livestock Judging Team to secure the reserve national champion title at the National Collegiate Livestock Judging Contest during the North American International Livestock Exposition, NAILE, in Louisville, Kentucky.
The livestock judging team is part of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Animal Science and has built a legacy through a century-long tradition of excellence. Led by Caleb Boardman, lecturer and livestock judging team coach, Bryan-College Station, the team competed in 14 contests leading up to the final competition in November.
But for Reaves, the national contest will be remembered as the highlight of his judging career.
Reaves reflects on team, individual achievement
While the overall team win was an exceptional feat, Reaves’ performance marked a significant milestone for himself and the team. Reaves was named high individual overall in the judging contest, finishing just four points shy of the all-time high score, which was set in the 1970s.
Reaves became the seventh Aggie to be named high individual at NAILE. Additionally, he was high individual in swine, total beef and performance beef. According to Boardman, it is rare for an individual to win multiple categories. Reaves also finished fourth in reasons and tied for 10th in sheep/goats.
“It was a special day for Reaves and the team,” Boardman said. “I am proud of everyone’s hard work and belief throughout the season.”
The national competition marked the end of Reaves’s judging career. Below, he shares the experience of being on the reserve national champion team and lessons learned along the way, offering advice to younger judging team members.
What has been the most memorable part of being on the livestock judging team and why?
The practices leading up to the contests. We traveled thousands of miles while spending countless hours in the vans, all of which allowed us to connect with one another. I distinctly remember a 14-hour drive to South Dakota when one of my teammates created a Google survey form with questions about people in the van, and we answered who we thought best fit those descriptions.
Another memory that comes to mind is our trip to the National Western in Denver, Colorado. We were judging fat cattle at a feedlot, standing in the snow in what felt like negative temperatures. On our way back to the van, someone decided to throw a snowball, then like any good group of Aggies, we had a full-blown snowball fight.
By far the greatest memory I have would be the mornings of every contest. Before exiting the van, we would play the Aggie War Hymn at full volume and sing the entire song. Every time we put our arms over each other, it sent chills through my whole body. As soon as the war hymn was over, we would stand in a circle outside the van and say a group prayer.
How did you become interested in livestock judging?
Growing up as the son of an ag teacher, I was heavily involved in showing livestock. I entered my first livestock judging contest at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo when I was 9 years old. From that point, I was hooked.
In high school, I was fortunate enough to be on a team that competed at contests throughout the year. With my dad as my coach and my brother and cousin as teammates, going to contests was always a fun time. My parents recognized my love for judging and allowed me to attend several collegiate judging summer camps. I attended the Texas A&M and Blinn College livestock judging camps and both gave me a look at my future. After listening to past and current team members talk about their contests and successes, I knew I wanted to be like them one day.
What drew you to the Texas A&M Livestock Judging Team?
Every major livestock judging contest we attended was either held at Texas A&M or officiated by Texas A&M faculty and the current judging team members. I knew about Texas A&M’s legacy and the kind of livestock leaders who had come out of the program. After judging for two years with the Blinn team, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to continue my judging career. I remembered all the industry leaders who competed for Texas A&M and the program’s winning legacy and decided to meet with Caleb Boardman. During the visit, I learned about the history and traditions and what livestock judging would look like as an Aggie. It didn’t take me long to know this was going to be my home for the next two years. Fortunately for me, several of my closest teammates at Blinn also decided to judge at Texas A&M.
What skills, other than learning how to evaluate livestock, have you gained as part of this team?
Judging at Texas A&M taught me a lot of things beyond evaluating livestock, particularly how to uphold the standards and traditions set by the century of teams that came before us. If you walk down the halls in Kleberg and look at the pictures of the teams from years past, it gives you an incredible feeling to know that everyone up there is supporting you. It was our responsibility as current team members to make sure that we represented this program to the same level those before us did.
It also taught me how to be a team player. At Blinn, we had a year to get to know each other before we really started competing. At Texas A&M, we only had a few months to connect as a team before our season started. Fortunately, the long van rides and countless hours we spent together really allowed us to become close.
I also learned not to take things for granted. As our season’s end approached, I realized how little time we had together as a team. The closer we got to our last contest, the more I started to reflect on our journey. I knew that I would never be in this same setting again, representing Texas A&M University at a national level, with my best friends standing by my side. I realized that and really took in the moment to appreciate what was happening.
What did the reserve national champion win mean for you and your team members?
Naturally, the goal was to win the national title. But coming into the start of the season, most people outside our program did not have us on the list of teams to beat. Other schools may have recruited better or had more team members to potentially run, but I knew we had a chance because of our team’s work ethic. All of us made it our focus to work and learn. Things may not have always gone our way, but our progress continued to show.
After ending our spring on a less-than-ideal note, we pushed through as a team. We were hungry to get better. For us to not be considered one of the top recruited teams, and then winning reasons and finishing second at Kansas City was a wake-up call and gave us the confidence we needed to move forward. We were disappointed to not win the national title, but knowing how we climbed into the reserve spot is still pretty special.
How did you feel when you learned you were high individual in three categories and overall?
There were so many emotions that were going through my mind. There was a sense of sadness knowing that I had just walked out of my very last judging contest. I was sad knowing the fun with my judging team was over.
There was also a sense of accomplishment, knowing that after all these years I was able to end with the best day I ever had judging. The 9-year-old me would have been proud knowing he chased his dream of becoming a collegiate livestock judging team member and was actually competitive.
There was a feeling of gratitude toward everyone who helped me get here. Gratitude to my family for supporting me and my love for the game, gratitude to the coaches who taught me and pushed me to be my very best, and gratitude to the volunteers and industry who support youth and livestock judging. But most of all, there was a feeling of completion, knowing that I was able to end the best chapter of my life so far on a high note.
What advice would you give to someone interested in being part of a collegiate livestock judging team?
I could jokingly say, ‘learn how to travel because that’s all you will do for the next four years.’ Or, ‘learn how to get along with your teammates.’ But the biggest piece of advice that I would give someone is to go for it. Don’t let fear or doubt keep you from trying. If you want to be on a collegiate judging team because you love livestock and want to do your absolute best, then nothing should stop you. Give it everything you have, and you will not regret a single second, regardless of the contest results.
2023 Livestock Judging Team and accomplishments
Reaves praised his whole team for its strength and ability to grow together as a team throughout the 2023 season and earn many accomplishments along the way. Another highlight of the season was winning the reserve champion title at the American Royal judging contest in Kansas City, Missouri.
Team members in the Department of Animal Science included:
- Mikala Grady ’24, Grandview.
- Abi Hooper ’24, Joaquin.
- Kevin Jendrusch ’24, Falls City.
- Abby Johnson ’24, Hermitage, Arkansas.
- Austin Maners ’24, Santa Rosa, California.
- John Reaves ’24, Spring.
- Will Spicer ’24, Magnolia.
- Keaton Woods ’24, Tipton, Indiana.
Team members in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications included:
- Kaitlyn Cloud ’24, Carthage, Missouri.
- Eleeza Waggoner ’24, Johnstown, Colorado.
- Saige Ward ’24, Laramie, Wyoming.
The team was coached by graduate assistant coaches Kyle Despain of Laramie, Wyoming, and Katie Kempen of San Antonio.