On the horns of a dilemma

Lee Pitts

Auction markets solve a lot of our problems. Not only do they provide the best form of price discovery, they also give us a place to send our waspy critters. Like weary parents who celebrate when their bratty kids are old enough to send to school, (where they become the problems of some poor teacher), we celebrate when we finally get our wild cows corralled and the Gooseneck door is closed. When that trailer door is next opened the crazy cows, belligerent bulls and horny heifers become the problem of the courageous folks at the auction market. In many instances our bad actors do far more damage to the sale barn facilities than they bring in commission.

While cattlemen in northern climes may laugh at the lop earred, multicolored, horned cows of the great southwest, be advised that they are that way for a reason. These cattle have more enemies than their northern cousins and they use their horns as a weapon against pumas and people. Their hides are mobile air conditioners and their ears remind us that in many parts of cow country the best cow is a cross between two distinct species: the Bos Taurus and Bos Indicus. Laugh at their ears if you want ye northern cowpokes but plop down one of your good looking, hornless beasts in Fort Huachuca, Arizona in the middle of summer and you’ll see what I mean.

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean that these cattle can’t be a challenge at the auction market. One of the most important services that sale barns provide is sorting our cattle into uniform lots for the buyers. Many times I have sent a mixed load of stockers to the local auction and when they were sold I hardly recognized them. I quickly learned as a young rancher that one talented person with a sorting stick may bring your biggest premium of all. But the person doing the sorting might get killed in the process!

Years ago I got to a sale the day before and went to hang out at the auction market where we’d be dispersing a big herd the next day. Being aware of my vast judging team experience and my encyclopedic knowledge of cattle the sale manager asked if I’d be willing to help, as he was a little short handed in the labor department. I puffed out my chest, said I’d be glad to share my knowledge and was promptly told to, “Get on a gate, open it when I tell you to and try hard not to mess things up.”

The alleys that day were no place for a coward and I was put over the fence several times. The cattle weren’t crazy, just a tad bit independent, I’d say. I have one memorable cow to thank for introducing me to the solar system during those festivities. I am told it’s quite rare for anyone to see as many constellations of stars as I did that day, especially at three o’clock in the afternoon! That cow also taught me a valuable lesson: never get to a sale a day early. If you must, stay away from the auction yard.

The next day, after we had sold the cows, we sold the bulls. We ran them in as groups and on the very first pair the buyer wanted to avail himself of buyer’s choice. This put the auctioneer on the horns of a dilemma. Due to space limitations out back we’d expected to sell the bulls in groups but this guy was the biggest cow buyer and the auctioneer didn’t want to offend him. So he caved in which meant the ring men had to sort the one bull off in the ring and in doing so they put themselves in grave danger. Emphasis on the word “grave.” Then we sold the second bull to the same guy for $25 more! Sometimes it works that way.

The audience was like a bullfight crowd, seeming to love every second of the ring men’s dance with death that day. After the sale I asked one of the brave ring men if he wasn’t a little upset at the crowd for being so bloodthirsty. He looked up to the sky where a band of buzzards were making their daily rounds and said, “Those people on the seats came to see a show and they are just like those buzzards in many ways. They don’t care if the ring men or the cattle die, just as long as something does!”