Modern auction in Loma benefits region

Longtime Cattle buyer Merlin Williams stands next to the ring making subtle flips with his sale card to bid on the animals.

Dust flies as sheep are moved into the auction.

The entire arena is a scale.

Think of the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction not as a catwalk — with which it shares many similarities — but as a cattlewalk.

Some of the participants have to be prodded onto the stage, like reluctant junior ballerinas, while others burst in as though born to be stars, eager to be stared at, evaluated and then hustled off.

Still other divas stalk onto the stage and stare out, their brown, unblinking eyes seemingly as curious as eyes in the audience, which travel up and down the animals’ musculature from ankle to forelock and from chest to rump and back again.

The participants are fully on display, not just to the audience crowded around the stage, but via webcam to locations around the country.

Better known to many as the Loma sale barn, the auction started up Jan. 30, 2008, and this year owners Jim Brach and Bill Martin expect to send 60,000 or more head onto the stage and then to points beyond. Some will go the high county for fattening up, others to feedlots for the same purpose, still more begin their trip that leads most directly to the dinner plate via the slaughterhouse, butcher’s saw and grocery-store meat counter.

But wherever the trip ends up, it begins in Loma, where the cattle industry was long bereft of a market.

“At least for this decade, the challenge has been reasonable access to a sizable market” for western Colorado ranchers, to say nothing of their counterparts in eastern Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and other locales, said Terry Fankhauser, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

With the closures of sale barns in Montrose in 1995 and Fruita in 2002, West Slope ranchers were at a competitive disadvantage when shipping their cattle to sale barns on the east side of the Rockies or to sales farther west. Only a sale barn in Delta remained in western Colorado until the Loma yard opened.

“You’re looking at $4 to $5 a loaded mile” for a semitrailer load in extra transportation costs to farther-flung sales, Fankhauser said. “When you can load those cattle and run them 50 miles or even 100 versus 250 or 300, it’s a serious difference.”

The timing for Martin and Brach could hardly be better. Beef prices are undergoing “a fantastic improvement,” said Stephen Koontz, an associate professor in agriculture and resource economy at Colorado State University.

The improvement is the result of a combination of factors, Koontz said, among them a slow improvement in the economy, a revived consumer appetite for beef and lower prices for corn, which is used as cattle feed.

In building the sale barn, Martin and Brach are “trying to modernize what’s actually an old industry,” Fankhauser said. “It’s been around since two or three people got together and dickered on price of an animal.”

The competitive-bidding process is at the heart of what Reeves Brown, the executive director of Club 20 and a rancher himself, calls the “Cadillac of sale barns” in Loma.

In all, 235 people can take seats in the arena overlooking the stage on which the animals — goats and sheep also take turns — parade.

The arena itself is a scale, and above it, two plasma-screen televisions list the number of animals on stage at the moment, their total and average weights, the state of the current round of bidding and the result of the last one.

Actually, a bidder can be anywhere on Earth and participate.

Don Byers purchased a flock of 37 sheep against a bidder who was somewhere. Byers, watching online and clicking in bids, might never know where.

The online bidder never saw what Byers noted, though, not that Byers was giving much away himself.

When the sheep were prodded in, Byers noted their condition and decided they were worth the $1.15-per-pound asking price, but no more.

So he offered $1.10 and waited.

Auctioneer Ty Tingey called out “$1.12 Internet” and Byers countered with $1.15, just where the bidding began.

Silence from the online buyer and Byers had his flock at the original asking price, probably disappointing a seller and perhaps frustrating his cyber-competitor.

How did he nail the value of sheep so accurately?

“You gotta pay attention,” Byers said.

High in the seats overlooking the arena, Casey Litteral of Panguitch, Utah, his wife, Katie, a Fruita native, and their 11-month-old daughter, Jaylee, watched the goings-on with interest, but no bidding card.

Casey and Katie grew up in agriculture, and though Casey works on a drill rig, he and his wife want to get back to ranching.

“I just love it,” Katie Litteral said.

While the Litterals watched the auction, others peeked up on occasion from the pages of publications as disparate as The Nickel and The Wall Street Journal.

To be sure, baseball caps with ag-related logos outnumbered the cowboy hats, and there was only one TaylorMade (golf equipment) wearer, and he left early.

Inside, the calm is markedly different from the atmosphere outside, where the pungent mixture of cow manure, straw and diesel fumes from waiting pickups fills the air.

Not a whiff of the aroma, however, gets inside.

Watching the auction is a form of entertainment, Casey Litteral said, alternately shifting his attention from the animals to the bidders and their subtle signals.

“They try to make it not noticeable so you won’t know who’s bidding against you,” Casey said.

The master of that art, 76-year-old Merlin Williams of Montrose, refused the front row of chairs with comfortable backs and hauled a stool right next to the arena rail, leaving him inches from the cattle, at least one of which snuffled its muzzle up to him on a turn across the stage.

Williams’ position is probably not coincidentally next to the camera that gives online buyers their view of the stock.

Per Litteral’s observation, Williams signals his bids with the slightest of taps of his bid card against the rail where only Tingey and the sale-barn staff can see.

Others in the back don’t need to be so subtle, waving an arm to tell Tingey they’ll top the last bid. All their competitors have their backs to the bidder.

Only Tingey can see the online bids, so he announces them as they come in.

The first herd to be auctioned off, 33 head from the Uinta Basin across the state line, moved in like a flock of land-tied swallows, swirling first one direction, then another, in unison.

One of them, though, was expertly cut out of the herd by Martin and Rees Potter, at the request of a bidder.

The remaining 33 head went for $94.50 a hundredweight, and the loner that was cut out sold immediately afterward for $85.

“That was Merlin” who called for the odd calf to be cut out, Tingey said. “He could see one out of 3,300. It wasn’t that big a feat.”

The arena has a side stall built in for just that kind of thing, so that animals deemed separate bidding can be culled out.

Williams said nothing specific jumped out at him to make him ask that the cow be set apart from the mass of hooves and hair. “She just didn’t fit the deal.”

As it happened, the bargain cow ended up back in the herd, all purchased by the same buyer.

Size is everything in beef these days. Cattle producers in 1960 produced slightly more than 500 pounds of meat per cow and today they produce more than 800 pounds of meat per cow, according to Darrell R. Mark of the Oregon State University Beef Extension Team.

Buyers aren’t the only attentive people at the auction. Sellers also watch closely to see how their stock fares on the auction block.

Brad Tilton took a couple cows to the auction from his Loma ranch.

Usually he sells his stock online, but decided to eliminate the hassle of the sale by putting the animals up for auction at the sale yard, garnering 50 cents a pound for one animal and 40 cents a pound for another, Tilton said.

For Tilton, proximity to the sale yard was everything.

“It’s great for the West Slope” to have the yard, Tilton said.

It’s also the chance for a bevy of wranglers to ride their horses, escorting the stock off the arena and into pens where they await shipment to the next stop.

Sunni Valencia, Dani Massey and Heather Lofstrom, among others, seize the chance to ride for the Wednesday sales.

Lofstrom works the rest of the week in retail, but this one day she’s riding.

“This is my fun job,” Lofstrom said. “It’s called ‘Cowgirl up.’ “

Massey, who hails from a Whitewater ranching family, said the sale gives her the opportunity to ride, something she started not long after learning to walk.

For Valencia, it’s another phase of the ranch business. She works seasonally on a ranch and as a veterinary technician.

The wranglers aren’t there for fun.

Valencia was summoned once into the ring to deal with 1,800-pounds of PO-ed, soon-to-be pot roast that defied Martin and Potter’s efforts to shoo it along, sending them for safety behind curved concrete-and-metal shields built into the show ring.

Potter and Martin eventually got the bull moving without having to call in the big gun, Potter’s red border collie, Ba&#241o, which waited in the stands with ears perked and eyes fixed on the bull. (Suffice it to say,  Potter got Ba&#241o from a man named John.)

For the wranglers, the sale is a once-a-week workday. For the ranchers, sale day is not unlike a trip to the bank.

The once-a-week sale is a business for ranchers who sell stock in larger lots, but it also marks the opportunity for them to bring in cash as needed.

“This is their pay day,” said Potter.

Mesa-area rancher Carlyle Currier said the years without a Grand Valley sale barn were hard on ranchers who needed those small-lot money boosts.

It only made sense to cross the Continental Divide with a semitrailer of livestock, so a rancher could stand a chance of covering costs with plenty of volume, Currier said.

“I think biggest benefit (of the Loma auction) is to the smaller producers” whose access to markets is more limited than that of larger ranching operations, Currier said.

Small-lot sales have a long history in ranching, Fankhauser said.

“If the refrigerator went on the blink, you’d take one or two head of cattle down” to the auction and use the proceeds to get a new refrigerator,” Fankhauser said.

“Livestock at all times are a marketable commodity, and the sale barn operates every week,” he said.


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