Auction draws cattle buyers from all over
A fixture of Jefferson County for decades, the Central Oregon Livestock Auction continues to connect the area to buyers across state lines.
"The yard has been in Madras, I think, since the '60s," said Julie Thompson, who works for the auction.
Despite the fact that the sales only occur on Monday, marketing cattle, organizing the sale and receiving cattle keep everyone at the yard busy all week long.
Depending on the time of year and type of sale, on any given week, the sale can run through several hundred head of cattle to 3,000 head.
Feeder sales are always bigger and 1,000 head is considered a smaller sale. From January on, things start to slow down some, compared with fall feeder sales that can average 2,500 to 3,000 head of cattle.
"The feeder sales are where most of our volume is coming from. Feeder size cattle are 300-900 pounds," she said.
A normal sale is where most people sell butcher cows or the cull cows, basically, the cattle that they want to get rid of. The auction will also run through a few pigs and sheep on regular sale days as well.
"We receive cattle seven days a week," Thompson said. "Even though the sale is one day a week, it is all week long that we are working on getting to that point."
Consignors bring their cattle to the yard throughout the week, and, according to Thompson, expect the yard to market the cattle so they receive the highest possible price. To do this they rely on information provided by the seller and reach out to buyers accordingly.
"We have to know kind of what we have so we know what buyers to bring."
The yard uses mass texting to get the word out to buyers across different states and spends time making one-on-one phone calls, as well, to bring people in to purchase the livestock.
And buyers come from all over.
"They come from everywhere, Colorado, Utah, everywhere," Thompson said, to name a few of the states.
Feeder sales bring in different buyers than regular sale days.
On an auction day, there are about 30 employees working to keep things going smoothly. Some work in the ring, while others are behind the scenes moving livestock to different pens — staging them to go into the ring and putting them into buyer's pens as the come out of the ring.
Inside, a clerk enters prices and tag numbers into the computer, while several people work in the office handling transactions — giving buyers their numbers or handing out and receiving checks.
"Then we have a guy outside, up in what they call the crow's nest. He's a penner. So when a transaction comes through from the clerk, it goes to his laptop and says 'This is the buyer number and this is the order number' and he tells the guys down in the alleyway which gate to open and which pen they go in," Thompson said.
There are usually three or four people opening gates down in the alleyway that the cattle are released into after coming out of the ring. "It is quite a little stretch; it goes anywhere from gate three to gate 45," she said.
On the inside alley, which guides the cattle into the staging area before they enter the ring, a horseback rider and several others move the cattle up the alley from different pens.
In the staging area, there are hydraulically operated gates that allow the cattle to be separated easily by pen lot or head count, before being moved into the ring.
The hydraulic gates are an improvement that has been made since Trent Stewart, the current owner, took over operations six or seven years ago. The gates allow the people sorting the cattle to remain up out of the pens when cattle are coming into the ring.
"It's a little safer and it's a little quicker because you are not manually opening and shutting the gates; you just hit levers."
There are also sorters working the dirt pens, behind the inside alley, putting caves into groups by weight, color, size and sex.
This time of year is often slower around the sale yard and they make adjustments accordingly, dropping one sale a month off their schedule. Fall sales are often busier.
"In the fall, beginning in September, we have a sale every Monday clear through Christmas, and then we start cutting back," Thompson said.
The weather can also have an effect on the sales. If it snows too much in a short period of time, Thompson said it makes it hard to get cattle from the ranches, because the snow hinders access.
At the end of the day, the auction is attempting to make it worth it for the buyers who travel to be there, which is why they drop sales off the schedule in the slow season.
"We try to concentrate the cattle, because buyers want to come and they want to get a whole truck load," she said. "They don't want to come if they can't fill an entire semi. It's not worth it for them."