Out in front at the cattle auction every week, you have three distinct types of people.
The first major group is the order buyers. They do exactly what their name implies: buy cattle to fill orders from producers all over the country, typically in either Texas or the big grain-producing states of the Northwest.
A sale barn will typically have the same order buyers there every week, and as long as we could do that, we knew we were going to get a good, competitive bid on the producers’ cattle. These order buyers, who always came and sat right down in front, bought in the greatest numbers and almost exclusively calves.
Up in the bleachers, you have the next group of buyers who come to the sale barn every week: people who want to buy a cow or two to take home to their own farm. Although they don’t buy in large numbers, they’re important to the sale barn. Order buyers won’t buy an orphaned calf and take it home and bottle-feed it, but a husband and wife with a few head at home might. Or another person will buy a cow, not minding that she’s eight or nine years old and short-mouthed. Basically, this group will buy the bottom end of the cattle you have for that day.
The last group of folks you have at a sale barn on auction day are the old-timers. They’ll come, eat a hamburger in the auction’s café and socialize with their friends, and get caught up on what’s going on in the cattle market. When I got started, a good friend of mine who owned one of the competitive stockyards in my area told me, ‘Jerry, coffee shop talk is going to make you or break you.’ And it’s true: word-of-mouth reputation matters. And these so-called old-timers can be the best source of advertisement that you can have as a sale barn. Throughout the week, they’re the ones talking with everyone around town about what they saw Monday afternoon.
At a sale, all of those groups play an important part. You need them all there in order to be confident you’ll sell every kind of animal that comes.
Behind the scenes, we had about 25 people keeping the place running smoothly.
The auctioneer is the most visible part of the sale barn, and one of the most important people you can hire. The auctioneer can make or break your sale, and finding one you’re confident in can be a tough job. What makes a good auctioneer? One that knows cattle. He should have current knowledge of what they’re worth and what they should bring that particular week. An auctioneer should also know the buyers, the regulars, and what they’re usually looking for. He’ll know not to ring a cow off until they all have a chance to bid. Reputation is key for a sale barn, and the auctioneer is a major part of creating it.
We hired cattle handlers who could move the animals safely around the new, strange environment. It’s easy to whoop and holler and cowboy the animals along, but that’s not the best way to do things. A good cattle handler will realize that the animals belong to someone, and beginning with unloading the trailer, to moving the animal through the sale ring, and finally loading them again on the other side, the producer needs to know that his cattle are being treated in a humane fashion and, as close as possible to how they would be at home.
In the office, you have a courteous and competent staff who handle the money and the paperwork after the sale; my wife, Mary Jane, worked back there all of the years I managed the sale barn. They get to know each of the producers individually and give them good customer service, greeting them, asking after their families, and most importantly, thanking them for their business. This applies to every single employee at a sale barn—we always thanked everyone for working with us.
And that leaves the sale barn manager: that was me for over a decade. People would say to me, ‘You just have a sale on Monday, don’t you? You must not be very busy.’ But my wife would be able to tell you better than anyone else what kind of hours I had. I was up early and out late all week long working to get the sale together. Throughout the week, I spent my time visiting producers and talking to them about marketing their cattle and offering to help them in any way we could. We’d help them pen; we’d help them trailer; we’d even work their cattle, if they asked us to. The producers in your area are the ones you make your living with, so we would do anything to keep their business and make them glad to sell their cattle with us.