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This edition of A Few Minutes is with Sam Funk from Definance, Missouri, the market judge for the Iowa State Fair FFA Market Lamb Show. Enjoy reading our candid interview with Mr. Sam Funk and be sure to check back for more state fair judge interviews!

What is your background and current involvement in the sheep industry?
My family has been raising sheep commercially for generations.  My sister and I started to show lambs at a young age and developed some interesting breeding sheep programs early.  Later we started moving toward raising primarily market lambs and that is where I developed my young skills in breeding market lambs.
Today we have a multi-site flock with a great friend in Utah maintaining part of the flock and a small group of ewes at our Missouri location.  In prior years we ran upwards of 200 wether dams, but we have trimmed back those numbers somewhat and added a small flock of Southdowns into the mix as well.

I’ve served as the chair of the Kansas Farm Bureau state sheep and goat advisory committee and been an official at several 4-H, FFA, and collegiate judging contests – primarily with responsibilities for assisting in the evaluation of sheep.

How does your current operation affect what you look for when evaluating sheep?

I appreciate a lot of types and breeds of sheep.  No single breed or type will fit all production needs.  Seeing what are fairly high quality sheep on a consistent basis sure sets the bar high for excellent sheep to make an impression in the ring.  Having multiple breeds (primarily Hamps and Southdowns) I get to make decisions on the relative quality of each breed when it comes time to make critical decisions such as culling or examining future genetic choices with investments.  I strive to see the economic potential down the road for the flocks and evaluate my options based on where I believe the most reliable successful outcomes are.  Some of those same criteria can be applied into the show ring.  If an animal meets your needs for the priority areas, then you start to move into the areas where the animal excels in lesser areas or where it dramatically overpowers others in the class.  I like a great pattern in a show animal, but that animal should satisfy the economically important areas as well.

What person/people influenced or helped to shape your view on what the ideal sheep should possess?

My sister probably says that I’m the sheep judge and “big name” breeder in the family, but she taught me the basics of what I know in regards to sheep.  Dr. Jerry Lipsey was very instrumental in developing my judging skills while he was at the University of Missouri before joining the American Simmental Association.  Ross Swofford was our county livestock specialist with MU Extension growing up and he certainly helped me develop as well. 

Beyond those core mentors I have numerous breeders and friends along the way who have provided their insights into what makes an ideal sheep.  We all have different needs.  The sheep we raise should be those we believe are the best suited for the production systems we implement and the markets we need to serve.
Anyone remember when George Buckham said that he liked some give in a sheep’s pasterns rather than being up on their toes?  It made it easier for them to move.  That kind of advice from a seasoned breeder is something that is missed in a lot of conversations with those who are newer to raising sheep.  Some of our youth are told this is a lamb and not much more during their short project meetings.  I enjoyed studying sheep and learning from those who could make statements backed up by sound reasoning and oftentimes life’s seasoning.

Where did you attend college and what awards did you achieve while judging in college?

I have degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Texas A&M University, and have completed my Ph.D. coursework and passed all of my qualifying and preliminary exams in Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.  I judged at the collegiate level on the Dairy Cattle and Livestock Teams at MU.  Probably few people around can say they placed in the top 10 of national contests in consecutive years at the collegiate level on a Dairy Cattle Judging Team and then with a Livestock Judging Team.  Twenty years ago I could probably tell you exactly how I placed in several contests.  I had some ribbons and hardware in my room from judging.  It means a lot more to me now when I see those who can tell you the reasoning behind their decisions and use logical criteria in their evaluations.

Just like when I started selling market lambs and taking more pride in how young people were doing with my lambs than ever I did myself – I take a lot more pride in the young people I have helped coach in their early judging careers and seeing them succeed not just around the ring with four animals, but in their lives as they make decisions based on sound reasoning and using the creativity and abilities they are endowed with by their Creator.

What are your initial sorts when evaluating market lambs?

I study the lambs on their way into the ring and how they stride toward me and away from me.  You can view them on the move and get a good picture of how they are likely to end up in the class.  The handle is a step to either confirm or change my original opinion.  Sometimes the handle gives you a good surprise or a difference in a close decision.

I require adequate muscle and cover in a market class and then look for the “bells and whistles.”  As long as that is a live animal evaluation, and not solely on the rail, we are going to have aesthetics contributing while placing classes.  Some of our trends in desirable attributes have a basis in correlation to carcass merit.  Other fads are simply, fads.  Fads are not necessarily bad, but they may also have no long term practical use.  If I don’t see a practical use, don’t expect me to use them to sort a class.  Genetics may help an animal to sell well early on, but it is not necessarily evident in a finished market lamb class.  In the same way, characteristics that may help increase the value of a lamb at an early age may not be what are valuable in a finished market class.

What’s the best lamb you have ever seen? What is the best lamb you have ever judged?

I’ve seen a lot of good lambs.  “Rock of Ages” was a ram lamb that I did not get over for a long time after I saw him as a ram lamb at Mike Hancock’s.  I judged that ram several times against several sheep in my mind.

What do you think is the most important issue facing the sheep industry today?

Today is a floating target.  With the widespread Drought of 2012 I believe the shortage of feedstuffs – pasture, corn, soybean meal, etc. will be the most important issue for the survival of several flocks.  We have already seen culling taking place – deep culls of good sheep and good cattle.  The next two years will likely see a need for rebuilding our herds and our flocks to find enough domestic supplies to meet demands.  Let us pray that our economy and our nation rights themselves so we can have a future where we can enjoy the ability to feast on a great steak or a lamb chop coming off the grill in a land that is free and where the freedoms afforded us by prior generations are not taken for granted.

You can go anywhere on a weeklong vacation, where would you go and who would you take with you?

I’d take the family to Disney World.  Sorry.  It used to be a trip to the Midwest Stud Ram Sale but after one trip with the family to Disney World we were hooked.  (Right now two guys named Larry and Rex are snickering while they read this.)

What’s your biggest pet peeve in the showring?

I don’t want to see anyone blow their top.  I want everyone to have a great time:  Youth, parents, spectators, and officials.  It is work to get those sheep to the ring looking their best, but let us remember that we are there to represent not only our sheep but ourselves.  Encourage those around you and enjoy their success so they can enjoy your success as well.  Let’s remember to be thankful for the good competition we can enjoy.

Do you consider yourself more of a handle judge or a profile judge?

I use the handle to confirm what I saw earlier or to get more precise on evaluations for close decisions.  That really doesn’t make me a profile judge as much as it makes me a judge that considers first what I see from the profile, from behind, and initially on the move.

What is your all-time favorite food?
A great lamb chop on the grill with lemon pepper is difficult to get around.  But I’m also a fan of a beef ribeye steak.  My wife can cook up a leg of lamb with an orange glaze and a butternut squash that is out of this world.
Every time I get another degree finished, and the party starts, out comes the deer summer sausage with sharp cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers!
My mood at the time will dictate what I most want to eat.  Just know that meat will be on the menu!

Thanks Mr. Funk for your time!