While some young dairy enthusiasts grow up participating in dairy cattle judging and quiz bowl contests, students with an interest in dairy products can have a similar experience. Each year, a Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest is held, where some of the brightest students studying dairy science and food science compete on a national stage. Competitions at the high school level also take place across the country.
The collegiate contest began in 1916; except for short gaps during World War I and World War II, the contest has taken place every year since. It started out as a butter contest and later expanded to include other products. Today, there are six categories: Milk (2 percent), butter, cottage cheese, yogurt, Cheddar cheese, and ice cream.
Focused on the competition
Students get just one opportunity to test their talents in the national contest. A team can include three undergraduates and two alternates. Each team can also bring two graduate students who compete as individuals.
Tori Boomgaarden-Gross, a research and development scientist at Kemps LLC, participated in the contest as a student in 2007. “It taught me a lot of things,” she said. “It made me even more passionate about dairy.”
After graduation, she volunteered at a regional contest, and then she did scoring for the national contest. Today, she volunteers her time as the national contest coordinator. Boomgaarden-Gross enjoys giving back to the contest, which is run by volunteers.
The competition typically averages 16 teams, with as many as 21 teams participating in one year. Teams come from all around the United States, from New York to California. Some will also come from Canada, and a few foreign exchange students will participate, too.
The location is determined by the Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest board of directors, which consists of 15 members. The contest is funded by donations, with the host serving as a large financial supporter.
A vital component of the contest is the official judges. Boomgaarden-Gross explained that the judges have experience in different categories, and the lead judge for each product will have 10-plus years of experience in the dairy foods field. The lead judge selects up to three fellow judges from all over the country to assist in that category.
You can’t have a dairy products contest without dairy products, and it is up to the lead judge to secure the samples. They ask companies for donations, aiming to acquire 12 to 15 samples from different regions of the United States. Once the samples come in, they narrow them down, looking for specific defects for students to identify. In the contest, students judge eight samples in each category.
Practice makes perfect
Dairy products evaluation is not something you learn over night. Boomgaarden-Gross said, “It’s a big time commitment for students and coaches alike.”
Where she went to school, at South Dakota State University, it’s a year and a half of training. There is a class, and the top performers in the class move on to the team. The team then meets weekly to train.
The coaches procure samples in different categories and walk students through them. They talk about defects and rank them as slight, definite, or pronounced.
“It’s a tremendous commitment,” she said, “but what you get out of it has big-time value.”
Charles White, a long-time coach, would agree. White participated in the contest as a student while attending Mississippi State University. He worked in the dairy industry a few years before starting a career in academia. He coached his first team in 1981 as a faculty member at his alma mater.
He led the team at Mississippi State for 25 years. Then he moved on and taught the Middle Tennessee State University team for four years, and now he coaches at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His students earned top team honors in 2017.
For White’s teams, practices start at the beginning of the fall semester. He explained that it takes a significant amount of time to learn the different products, recognize flavors, and study how processing and exposure to light can affect flavors.
“Judging dairy products is not as simple as it sounds,” he said. “As coaches, we are helping students learn what is good and what is bad. If it’s bad, how do we fix it? If it’s good, how do we keep it good or make it even better?”
How does one judge a dairy product? Let’s use Cheddar cheese as an example.
White said that first you use your eyes to look at the sample. Does it look good? Is there openness (holes) in the cheese?
Then, use your sense of smell. Does it have a slight odor or a strong odor?
Next, work the sample up with your fingers. Is the cheese pliable?
Then, you taste it to further evaluate the body and texture. Flavor is a combination of taste and odor, he explained.
“It’s complicated, but you have to keep it simple,” White said. “Practice long enough, and it becomes second nature. Don’t try to think what a product is; let your nose, tongue, and other senses tell you what it is.”
To the benefit of all dairy
White enjoys the competition and working with students, but his passion for the contest goes beyond that.
“Having the contest is very important. There are all sorts of tests in the dairy industry to make sure milk is high quality and safe,” he said. “But for the customer, the only test they do is a taste test. If it doesn’t taste good, they don’t like it. Taste is pretty important.”
Many of the students he has coached are dairy science or food science majors, but not all. He explained that, especially for students without a dairy background, it’s important for them to know what it takes to produce high-quality milk and what high-quality milk tastes like. He believes the dairy products contest does a good job of that.
Students who participate in the national contest have a step up when they enter the working force. White said when they go to work, chances are they don’t need to be told what is a good or bad product because they already know. “This is a really good bonus for the people hiring these students right out of college,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”
He feels these skills are helpful to all future employees, whether they work in dairy processing or dairy production. “It’s helpful for the entire dairy industry, from cowside to processing,” he said.
Boomgaarden-Gross echoed his thoughts. She explained that the contest is great at teaching troubleshooting, and it is a really good training tool for soft skills that are important in the dairy industry.
As far as learning how to evaluate dairy products, Boomgaarden-Gross said, “It will always have value, as quality standards in dairy are really high.”
In addition, she said the contest is a good place for connecting with future employers. Placing high in a category is a good way to get your name out there. “Students who participate stand out,” she said.
The 96th contest will take place on April, 18, 2018, in Milwaukee, Wis., and is sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. For more information, visit www.dairyproductscontest.org.