2024 Ag Pride | It's in the genes: North Dakota coaches continue family tradition

For nearly 40 years, Dave Pearson has been teaching kids to judge livestock and voice their opinions, and most importantly, to develop lifelong skills beyond the livestock barn. Now a second-generation 4-H livestock judging coach for Adams and Slope counties in North Dakota, Pearson is training the children of some of his original students. And he shows no signs of slowing down.

“Livestock judging is 100 percent my father’s life,” says his daughter Alix Manthei, who grew up working alongside her father as a judge and now, after returning to her hometown of Hettinger, North Dakota, trains the team with him.

Dave put together his first team right after he started his job as a sheep herder at North Dakota State University's Hettinger Research Center, a position he has held for over 40 years. “I just thought it would be a good thing to start and it would be fun to work with a few kids,” Dave says. “Livestock judging is about more than just livestock placement – it's a tool to improve public speaking skills, confidence and decision-making.”

His father was an agriculture teacher and although he was not a rancher, he provided opportunities that sparked his son's interest in judging. Dave competed on the winning North Dakota FFA judging team and also received high individual honors. A trip to the national FFA competition led to him competing on the judging team at North Dakota State University.

And then judging became a way of life for the family.

The three Pearson children, Catie, Alix and their younger brother Ben, trained and competed on their father's team as children – although things were a little different back then and they all served as judges on the NDSU college team.

“It definitely wasn't that big when we were growing up,” says Catie (now Parker). “We had maybe three or four kids total.” After she graduated from college, moved back home and got a job, she laughed about her dad “making her help him coach the team,” and she was amazed to see nearly 30 kids. And they weren't all country kids—they were city kids who happened to be in 4-H.

“My dad is so easy-going, he's always talking to them, teaching them, and the parents saw something good in that,” Catie says. “They wanted their kids to get involved.” After having two young children (and a third on the way), Catie, who also works full-time in agronomy at Southwest Grain, retired from coaching and it was Alix's turn.

Alix works as a national account manager for Farm Journal and trains with the team on Wednesdays and Sundays. She says the hardest thing about judging livestock is that you rarely see immediate results – “You're not going to be good straight away, there's just so much to learn.”

Her team used to set goals to achieve a certain accuracy in certain classes or to get a high score for at least one reason. “We had smaller goals for many years that kept up with our growing team. Now that I've been able to watch this group grow and develop into incredibly successful teams, Adams/Slope rarely finish in the top three. We still have personal goals, but it's also fun to set higher goals that are attainable.” This past January, her senior team competed at the National Western in Denver after placing second at the state competition last year.

Just up the road in Bowman, North Dakota, the Pearsons' cousin Beth Criswell, whose mother is Dave Pearson's sister, trains the Bowman 4-H and FFA livestock judges, making livestock judging a cooperative, if competitive, family affair.

Beth's father, Jeffrey Hendrickx, started the Bowman County livestock appraisal team when Beth was young. Like the Pearsons, he often had to recruit a small number of children to even have a team. Beth discovered her passion for appraisal and was also on the NDSU team. When she returned to Bowman eight years ago and began working as a loan officer for Dakota Western Bank, her father handed her the reins.

“Sometimes Beth's kids and our kids judge together on an FFA or 4-H team, or we practice together,” Alix says. At competitions, the two teams sit together when the judges are called and compare their scores. “We compete when we compete, but when we don't, we work together.”

And most of the time, Pearson’s protégés are insulted.

“My dad has taken a lot of kids to Denver and Louisville during his career, and we strive every year to get our senior and junior teams ranked first, second or third,” Alix says. “We want our kids to win every time, but to do that we always have to be as prepared as possible. If a kid isn't prepared, we don't get called. We want to be as prepared as possible – and that usually puts us in the top three.”

Catie says that this mentality of preparation is reflected in his training. “Dad always strives for perfection. There have been days when I haven't felt like training, maybe only doing one set today, and Dad says, 'Let's do three.' He never does anything half-heartedly.”

Beth will take her senior team to the national competition in Louisville in the fall after placing first at the state championships last March. She says she modeled her program after that of her uncle and cousins. “Preparation is key. We're going to train, train, train. I tell them, 'If I can just get you guys twice a week, we're going to work our asses off.'”

There is agreement in the coaching family that ultimately it all comes down to one thing: passion.

“Our kids see that passion, and when they hear us talk about new terms or get excited about a good set, that fuels their fire too,” says Beth. “We hold them to high standards and they know what is expected of them. They're here to work – we'll have some fun too – but if we want to be successful, we have to work at it.”

They have all seen that this mentality doesn't end when their kids leave the program. Both teams have former members who come back to help with training and competitions.

“That's one of the things I'm most proud of,” Dave says, “is that these kids come back and help.” He thanked Mac Stuber, Tatum Fitch, Zach Rickerson and Tucker Ellingson, as well as all the producers who open their doors to practice on local farm animals.

This group of coaches all understand that “success breeds success.” Their kids see that and it shows in the growth and success of the programs. This year, Beth's team will head to Louisville with their first place state team, and Dave and Alix's team will head to Kansas City after placing third at state.

Cate, Alix and Beth all share the same respect for the men who paved this path for them – their fathers.

“As I get older, I appreciate the respect and admiration my dad gets in the industry,” says Catie. “It's an honor to hear, 'Oh, Dave is your dad? He's so much fun to talk to.'”

Beth says that as a child, she was honored to be related to the Adams/Slope County coaches and to have her father as a role model. “I was always proud to have Dave as an uncle – he built such a legacy and it's so impressive. I'm happy to be at least a small part of it.”

She also inherited her passion for cattle and livestock farming from her father.

“When we won the state competition this year, there was also a lot of recognition for my dad and the fact that he built this program. Nothing starts without a solid foundation, and I was just fortunate enough to be able to build on that.”

The girls hope that their father and uncle will continue coaching long enough to have his grandchildren on their teams.

“I'm really trying to find something in my life that I love as much as he loves cattle judging and sheep farming,” says Catie. “His passion is just so great.”

Anna Harden

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