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The sale barn: You never know what's going to come through that gate

By Ken Root

Fascination with a livestock sale barn is widespread across rural America. Even at a time when big producers are getting bigger, the auction barn fills a niche for smaller growers. I attended the auction at Manchester, Iowa, last week and was impressed by the quality of the facility, the friendly business demeanor of the employees as well as the culture that exists on sale day. The owner, Marvin Waterhouse, talked with me at length on the morning after the sale and related three generations of stories about his business: “You never know what is going to walk through that gate,” he said. That could be the catch phrase of every auction barn across the country.

The local “sale barn” has always been a place of business and social interaction. Today there are fewer barns, so each takes in a larger radius, but they are more savvy and high-tech with a goal of being around for generations to come. Marvin’s father started in the sale business in 1947 and he came in during the 1970s. He related the challenge of building this facility in the early 1980s, right at the low of the farm recession. He survived and today his son, David, sits in the auctioneer’s chair while Marvin does color commentary and watches the computer screens.

When you walk into an auction as an outsider, the atmosphere is a little cautious but the buyers and locals are welcoming once they identify you or learn that your motive for being there fits with the spirit of the community. It is a culture that is closely tied to the people of the land and to their livestock.

Stepping into the building you immediately realize that manure is a part of life. It is in the air and on the floor. When you enter the sale arena and look for a seat, you note that the upper benches are occupied but very few people sit low and close. That is explained when the first heifer comes in, gets excited and whirls. In a Baxter Black–type description:

“The green organic globules that sprayed out 20 feet from this excited bovine were recently discharged from her large intestine and a stream of heavy saliva flies out like a slimy rope. The smell is pungent but not too provocative as patrons who are impacted simply open their pocket knives and scrape off that which has stuck to their upper body and dispose of it by wiping on the clothing covering their lower extremities.”

The auctioneer has always been the central focus of an auction with a strong chant, sharp eyes and a quick mind. Today, that gets augmented by computers and LED screens that display all pertinent information as the animals come in and are sold. I was told on the day after the last auction in December that the average weight of steers in the sale, for the year, was 1,461 pounds. That type of information makes everyone’s pencil a little sharper and gives a packer buyer one more tool to estimate the future supply and the mood of the feeders.

From my perspective in the central Corn Belt, this fat cattle auction is a regional oddity and the only way of aggregating animals coming from small feedlots and dairy farms where livestock, hay and grain are all produced. When I watched them sell small framed cattle that were finished to high Choice and Prime, I questioned the rationale of feeding six dollar corn rather than selling it directly. Nevertheless, Jersey, Holstein and mixed black animals came through, in lots as small as one, to be bid up to high prices by the packers in the seats. “This was about the 20th time this year that we’ve sold a record priced animal,” said Waterhouse. The top steers on Dec. 17 brought $137.85, according to Susan Troester, office manager for the barn.

That’s the economics of the establishment. The social and cultural aspect of auctions is older than our country. Last summer, we were traveling in Ireland with a group of farms from across the Midwest and Plains. Our driver, attempting to cater to the interests of his guests, saw an auction barn about 200 yards from a scheduled stop at a brewery. Thank goodness there wasn’t an “either-or” requirement here! He said those who wanted to shorten their tour and tasting could walk to the auction and he’d pick us up. About half our group, both men and women, sipped and skedaddled to find an environment very similar to the sale barn in their home town. The weights were posted in kilos and the currency was Euros, but the method of sale was virtually identical with the auctioneer understandable and lilting a delightful Irish brogue. The buyers gathered at the edge of the ring, peering over and through the iron railing with arms around each other while they were bidding. I don’t know the origin of such behavior, maybe it follows the old saying: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

The animals arriving at the Irish auction were brought in conveyances of all kinds. From big lorries to tractors with small wagons and stock racks, the parking lot was tightly packed in this small country and the diversity of growers showed on their faces and in their equipment.

For some folks in rural America, it just isn’t a good week unless a few hours of it can be spent at the sale barn. Maybe they have nothing to sell that week and have no interest in buying, but the sounds, smells and tastes bring a strong satisfaction. Things are changing, however, as many of the auctions, which once supported a restaurant that was open on sale day to serve biscuits, gravy, fried potatoes, steak and ham, are now gone. At Manchester, the space where the café served for years has now been replaced by vending machines.

It will be interesting to watch the future of this institution of rural life as we homogenize our culture and utilize the Internet for commerce. The auctions will have to be well situated to compete and attract both buyers and sellers. However, the desire to keep some things “local” may just be the strongest asset of this unique and colorful part of rural life.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at

Date: 12/30/2013


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