Andrew Gathje placed first in individual poultry judging at the state FFA convention held during the last week in April.
Andrew Gathje placed first in individual poultry judging at the state FFA convention held during the last week in April.
Andrew Gathje loves to read poultry.

Better yet, chickens fit his personal groove.

It must mean he's a good egg.

The Chatfield High School sophomore and FFA member is part of the chapter's poultry team and also competed individually at the state FFA convention held April 28 through 30.

The son of Andy and Nora Gathje not only brought home first place honors in individual poultry judging, but assisted his team in earning eighth place.

"The contest consists of seven categories," Gathje explained. "They are interior egg grading, exterior egg grading, exterior egg grading reasons, past production laying hens, ready-to-cook parts identification, ready-to-cook chicken carcass grading, ready-to-cook turkey carcass placing, and a written test of 25 questions, and there are live chickens involved in the contest."

In the past production hen class, Andrew explained participants are given four laying hens and one has to rate the birds, first through fourth place, based on pigment condition and abdominal capacity, as well as their body conformation.

He elaborated how state competition proceeds, saying, "Before the contest begins, an official judges the contest to make a master key. When the contestants do their judging and hand in their scorecards, the scorecards are graded based on the master key. The contestant with the highest score out of all of the contestants in the contest receives first place. The top three out of five scores count for the team score and the bottom two scores are not counted. This year, I was the first place individual at both region and state contest."

Andrew explained that he chose to raise chickens and to join the FFA poultry team, adding that studying poultry evaluation has taken some practice throughout the school year.

"Chickens have been one of those animals that have always fit my personal groove since I was old enough to know what they were," he said. "They do not take up very much space, they do not eat or drink nearly as much as large animals, and they do not need to be cleaned out as frequently as bigger animals do."

At the beginning of the school year, Andrew said he was given a 200-page booklet that lists how to observe all seven activities correctly.

He added, "The section on the written test is the biggest section to study by far, as it is around 100 pages, which is about half of the book."

The first team practice is usually the first or second Thursday morning in September and the team meets every Thursday morning, until the last contest.

"I really enjoy poultry evaluation because you put in a lot of effort out front, and you can easily make it pay off as long as you study," Andrew said. "Everyone on the team is in it together. Some practice mornings are bright and filled with joy, and some mornings are bland and dreary."

That practice, as a team or as an individual, pays off in the downy-chick moments when Andrew is freed from school to attend regional or state conventions.

"The thing that I really look forward to is getting out of school for a few days and doing something that I love to do, which is doing something related to agriculture," he said. "Our chapter always goes cosmic bowling on the first night of (state) convention and that is inevitably fun."

Andrew said he enjoys the second day of the convention, which is also fun, but can be incredibly nerve-wracking. "This is because contest is the second day," he explained.

According to Andrew, the third and last days of the convention are also nerve-wracking, as the results from contest come out that afternoon right before everyone heads home. However, if an individual or team is one of the top three in the state contest, they are notified on the night of the second day.

"There is always a little pressure to do well as an individual, because you want to nail most of the classes so you can put up a good score for your team," he said. "The part I like about the team format is you can still have a really bad day and not harm your team score a single point. It is fun to compete as an individual because you can still do well by yourself, even if your team does not do well."

Andrew has confidence in his poultry evaluation skills for his team and for himself, as he has been picking out the best chickens since 2010.

"I have accumulated lots of knowledge over the past few years," he said. "When I go to competition now, I feel pretty relaxed because I know that I know what I am doing, and I realize that I have a very good chance of doing well."

He observed that competing at state creates a mixture of feelings. "This is because you are proud of yourself for making it out of regions, but you are also nervous because you are aware that there is one more step in which you can achieve," Andrew explained. "This year was not as nerve-wracking because I had one year of experience under my belt. However, I think most people could agree that competing at the state level is very nerve-wracking, and they know that they are going to have to be extra tough if they want to do well."

Andrew is proud to carry a new title in the chapter's history, as he wasn't fully expecting to have earned first place in individual poultry evaluation.

"I am the first individual in the history of the Chatfield FFA chapter to ever be a state champion in any evaluation contest. Finding out I won first place is like no other feeling in the world," he said. "You just feel on top of the world, like nobody can stop you. When you feel it, you have to embrace it hard, because it may be the last time you ever have that feeling again in your life."

Andrew said he was also proud that he could add his name to the rather long list of state champions at Chatfield this year.

"This was also an internally emotional time because you reflect on all of the hard work that you put in to get to this point," he continued. "I now realize that a strong work ethic can get you anywhere in life."

However, that strong ethic means there's more work ahead for Andrew, as he will someday have to help his team compete at national competition if he'd like to take part.

"Unfortunately, the team only placed eighth at state, and only the top two get to go on to nationals. As far as I am aware, I cannot go to nationals as an individual," he said. "However, I still have my 11th and 12th grade years to make it to nationals, and that is my goal: to make it to nationals at least once. I have never competed at nationals for FFA, but I did so for 4-H back in November, where the team placed 11th, and I had the highest score among my team members."

Andrew credits FFA with being one of the reasons he can face the school day. "I love anything related to farming, which is why I love FFA," he said. "Some days, I swear it is the main reason for my motivation to come to school. I consider myself to be a good student, but the typical classroom setting just isn't my groove. I would rather be on my feet improving my leadership skills, as well as my agricultural knowledge, which I can take into my farming career after I finish high school. Also, I can interact with people who truly care about agriculture and what is trending with it."

Agriculture has been his passion since he was old enough to know the difference between the hens and the rooster, so there's no question what kind of career he might choose to pursue.

"I have a mixture of career choices that I am looking at. Without a doubt, I want to farm with my dad," Andrew said. "However, there are a few side jobs that I am considering. First, my grandpa had an auction business when I was younger. He has since retired, but I can see myself getting my auctioneer's license. Second, I love pickup trucks, and I would strongly consider starting my own business of selling trucks. Someday, I would also like to apply for my license to be a poultry judge so I can pass my love for chickens on to younger kids."

Andrew concluded by recommending participation in FFA and its associated conventions for his fellow students.

"Even if it's not poultry, joining FFA and taking part in a CDE (Career Development Event) or an individual event is something you will likely not regret," he said. "I myself was a little hesitant when I joined in seventh grade, and it is now one of the only reasons why I enjoy taking part in school. I think just going to convention for the first time is the biggest step that you can make. At least, that was the hardest step for me. After I went to both state and national conventions for the first time, I was hooked, and I knew that I wanted to go back next year."