Main Street Bull Shows Bring Breeders and Businesses Together Again
Ranchers are busy year-round, everyone knows that – but the winter months tend to be a bit slower than the rest. So every year, a handful of small towns on the Great Plains take advantage of the lull and host a Main Street bull show. City officials reroute traffic, FFA-ers set up square pens, and agricultural businesses set up their booths. Ranchers back up their trailers and unload their prize bulls, bringing the flavor of the old west stockyards to downtown for a showcase of the best breeding stock around.
In Miles City, Montana, every first Friday in February, the main drag is full by 7 a.m. when the local FFA starts dragging panels, setting up pens, and spreading straw. By 8 a.m., they pop into the Montana Bar for a quick breakfast sponsored by the Miles City Chamber of Commerce. After some hot pancakes and a quick defrost, the FFA students finish setting up for the five-block stock show and head out to the ag center for the Ken Laubach Memorial Livestock Judging Contest.
By 9:30, most of the participating producers have filled the pens with the bulls they’ve brought to put on display, hoping to snag a few new customers and catch up with their old ones.
According to the Miles City Chamber’s Terri Fandrich, “We typically have about 40 producers come. They can have up to 6 yearling bulls in their pen. They come from typically four states…Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We usually have 10 different breeds represented.”
Miles City held their 29th Annual Cowtown Beef Breeders Show on February 5, despite frigid temps and biting wind. Some North Dakota breeders commented on the nice weather in Miles City, saying, “We’ll take 22 degrees over 14 degrees any day.”
Seemingly less enthused, the bulls tucked their legs beneath their warm bellies and munched on silage as they watched ice-capped cars pass by. Local businesses like Stockman Insurance provided hot drinks and a cozy reprieve from the cold. Many shops and restaurants offered sales and special promotions for visiting ranchers and their families.
“We think it has a great impact on the town, especially at this time of year, when everybody’s a little slower. It gives us a little boost in the middle of February that brings people to town from all over the region,” said Fandrich. “Producers bring their families with them, so they are doing some shopping, popping in and out of businesses to stay warm. We provide all the producers with lunch vouchers as well, so that gets them into our local restaurants.
“It’s second only to bucking horse sale for the bars, they get a lot of business. A couple of the bars usually bring in live music for the event, and it sort of turns into an all-day event.”
Like most public events this year, the Beef Breeders Show was a little smaller than usual, but it still brought business to downtown Miles City.
Gloria Grenz, owner of Miles City’s 600 Café, said: “We usually get a bigger lunch crowd that day, and I’m sure the shopping downtown, those businesses do well.”
The Beef Breeders Show always reminds Grenz of the 600’s good old days: “Years ago, they used to sell more livestock here than at the livestock center. Every morning at 6. But things change. But it’s always good to see our country friends again.”
Most local businesses benefit, but so do the producers.
“It’s sure worth going to,” said Plevna Hereford rancher Carol Sparks. “We look at it this way: for $300 total, we buy two pens… you reach a lot of people right there face to face. So, yeah, it is worth it.”
Sparks added: “We get to see other Hereford breeders that come in from other areas that we don’t get to see very often. And just the people wandering down Main Street, that’s always a lot of fun.”
Miles City isn’t the only one to bring bulls downtown, though. Valentine, Nebraska throws its annual Heart City Bull Bash every Valentine’s Day weekend. In addition to the bull show, Valentine is crowded with local vendors, concessions, arts and crafts booths, and runners. Yes, runners – the Heart City also hosts “The Running with the Bulls,” their annual 5k fun run/walk. What better way to stay warm in Nebraska in February than hoofing it with Herefords?
Unfortunately, the city of Valentine had to cancel its 20th Annual Heart City Bull Bash, which was scheduled for February 13, due to extreme weather conditions. It’s a tough time of year to host an outdoor event, but between calving and haying and shipping, the rest of a rancher’s year is already booked.
The town of Crawford schedules its Main Street bull show in early November, when the weather is still mostly agreeable in western Nebraska. According to Crawford’s Samantha Dyer, “We actually had two years where it was still so hot that we had to go get the firetrucks to water the cattle. They’ve got winter coats on by that time, and they’re standing in downtown Crawford – they get hot.”
2020 brought the 7th Annual Crawford Cattle Call, and according to Dyer, “It was the biggest crowd we ever had. We only had about 20 pens, but we had probably 400 people in downtown Crawford.”
The Crawford FFA raised money with a cornhole tournament and vendors sold everything from rocking chairs to kettle corn. In years past, the Cattle Call has also featured several contests and activities, including goat roping, 5k race, hay bale decorating, photography, and a chili cook-off. Dyer said: “This year we added a livestock judging contest, and that was a huge hit…we already have livestock judging teams planning on coming out next year.”
The Crawford Cattle Call has a lot going on, and according to Dyer, “It’s a lot of work. Probably the biggest as far as work is the physical labor itself, because the morning of the show we have to set up all the pens in downtown Crawford. It takes a small army.”
Thankfully, Dyer says it’s worth it. All in all, she estimates that the Cattle Call brings in over $10,000 to the Crawford community, so local businesses are big supporters of the Cattle Call.
“It’s an event that people have come to plan on,” Dyer said. “Our businesses have stated to our committee that it’s the biggest day of the year for them, so it’s an event that they look forward to.”
It’s not just the businesses who benefit, though. Dyer said: “A lot of our nonprofit organizations in the area have come up with something where they can generate funds from the event as well.”
The Crawford High School Rodeo Club smokes ribs and the Cheerleading Club dips caramel apples.
“We take a lot of pride in the Cattle Call being able to be a fundraiser for our nonprofits. For a lot of them, that’s their main fundraiser for the year,” Dyer said.
The folks in Winner, South Dakota put on a community bull show as well. The Winner Chamber of Commerce hosted its 18th Annual Bullnanza on Friday, February 12. But this year, Winner decided against featuring pens of live bulls in favor of a more low-key approach.
“They encouraged bull producers to come and set up a booth with information on their upcoming bull sales,” said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Scott.
The so-called Bullnanza has become more of a community trade show with door prizes and concessions. Even so, Scott said: “It just kind of remembers the ag producer, and especially the bull producer. It gives them a venue to show off their information.”
The Winner Bullnanza isn’t held on the main drag, though, like it is in Miles City, Valentine, and Crawford. Perhaps for convenience’s sake, it’s located at the Tripp County 4H building; something Miles City has considered as well.
According to Fandrich, “There’ve been questions about why don’t we move this out to the fairgrounds off and on for many years. But that’s part of the tradition, to be down the middle of Main Street. It’s a different event, you just don’t see that everywhere you go, you know, a line of bulls penned right down the middle of main.”
These Main Street bull shows hearken back to a time when horses were tied up outside the post office and there was a blacksmith on every corner. Those days have long since gone, but at least for one day every year, townspeople are reminded of the important role cattle play in the economy – and that’s no bull.
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In response to the severe drought conditions in the West and Great Plains, the Agriculture Department this week announced that plans to help cover the cost of transporting feed for livestock that rely on grazing.