By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
LA GRANDE The weekly cattle auction at Intermountain Livestock may be a single-day event it begins at 11:30 a.m. each Thursday, and it often lasts into the evening but it doesnt just happen in one day.
Each week during the busiest season roughly September through February yard manager Matt Martin assembles his crew of about 30 part-time workers early Wednesday morning, a day they spend unloading, sorting and tagging cattle and guiding them through a maze of pens.
Thursdays the big day, of course, when workers start their day feeding what can total 2,000 or more head of cattle to be auctioned, accepting more cows, sorting them according to size, weight and confirmation in general, getting everything ready for the 11:30 auction of feeder cattle.
Then, on Friday, the crew turns around and begins loading sold cattle onto a long line of trucks that gather each week at the auction site. Its a weeks work for most, crammed into three days. (Monday and Tuesday are spent cleaning the place and repairing equipment.)
Their noses out of their books
But, says Intermountain owner Dennis Arnzen, its a great diversion for a majority of the workers. Thats because many of them are students at Eastern Oregon University, students who would do almost anything to get their noses out of their books for a few hours, Arnzen says.
Each year we get a good return rate from our college students, who come back despite the difficult nature of the work, he said. They want to make a few bucks, work a fairly flexible schedule, and do some outside, physical work. It can be a real learning experience.
Thats certainly been the case for Martin, whos worked at Intermountain for seven years and even lives on the property. Along with wife Katie and six-month-old daughter Abbey, Martin has maybe a 50-yard commute to work. His daughters been known to take in the whole auction, he said, strapped comfortably to her carseat on a day when scheduled babysitting help fell through.
My job here is to sort cattle so well that they can get into and out of the ring as fast as possible, he said, taking a brief respite from the controlled chaos the staff manages each Thursday morning. Buyers, of course, enjoy getting their job done by the dinner hour, and area producers appreciate a smoothly-run auction because they dont want their cattle standing up all day.
They also want to get home at a reasonable hour. When producers are coming from as far away as Walla Walla, Wash., pulling out the stops to get them headed home as soon as their cattle are sold is a must.
Not much is left to chance. Because the entire operation is computerized, once the last head in their lot is sold, producers can duck into the sale office and receive a check after just a few keystrokes from office manager Elaine Conatser.
We want to make this the best place where people can come to market their cattle, Conatser said. It all starts with Dennis. Hes out doing the physical work right now, but (Wednesday) he was here late working the phones with our buyers, trying to do as much contacting as humanly possible. When you take that much pride in your work, and when you take good care of peoples animals, it makes them want to come back the next week.
Day in, day out
Indeed, Mick Hennessey, a Boise-based cattle buyer, is in La Grande every Thursday. Each week the local auction is the farthest he travels; this week, its amazing that hes even in La Grande, considering that the Vale auction Oregons other big cattle auction lasted until 4:30 Thursday morning.
Hennessey said he had just time enough to drive home, shower, put his daughter on the school bus, then hop back in his Jeep to drive to La Grande.
Its just part of the business, he says with a wry grin.
A 21-year veteran buyer, Hennessey says its both the quality and number of cattle at Intermountain that keeps him coming back each week.
It may be fun, but its not fun and games, he said.
Its stressful, he said of his work. Youre spending $40,000 or $60,000 of somebody elses money, all the while trying to disguise the fact perhaps with an extra-subtle bid gesture that youre interested in a particular lot.
Hennessey says hes good friends with buyers from three other packing companies Well probably go out for a beer after this is over, he says but that friendly relations can be enjoyed only after the auction is over.
While were in there, he says, pointing at the auction arena, its strictly business.
Down to earth people
Helping to keep all the action going is Lewiston, Idaho, livestock auctioneer Clay Bickford, whos been at his profession since 1977 after learning the stylized patter while still a high school student in Mason City, Iowa.
Whats kept him going all those years, he said, is the people he deals with every day and a glass of warm water in between his hour-long sessions to treat his throat.
People in the livestock business are good, down-to-earth people, he said, moments before climbing behind the microphone. They come here because they need to see what the market looks like, and because its fun.
There are tricks to the trade, of course, and Bickford who also owns part interest in a cattleyard in Lewiston sometimes resorts to egging buyers on.
I tell people to hang in there, because the other guy is weakening, he said with a smile. It works.
Why it works
In an era when most cattle is auctioned off by increasingly virtual companies that videotape the cattle for sale and market them on the Web, the local auction works, says Keating rancher Eric Romtvedt, because it fills a niche.
Its a necessary ingredient in the cattle business, he said. They take cattle from smaller producers. The quality is still very good, but they just dont have the numbers.
The cattle auction that once thrived in Baker City used to be a social time, he said. When Baker had their auction, people used to come from all over, Romtvedt said. Pa went to auction and Ma went to shop. Now its entirely different. We go there to see what the market is, and were strictly selling. This year, people held their cattle back to get more weight on them (when the price was considered too low last fall), but its working to their disadvantage. Right now people arent even breaking even.
Arnzen, the auction owner, said the market was artificially high last summer, but that there were signs of some stability now.
Everyone would like to get more money for their calves, and we endeavor to get the best price for our customers products, he said. The high price of hay brought on by last years drought has been a drag on producers profit margins, he said, but so far the number of head moved during the busiest season has been right around 2,000 per week.
Its a tribute to the quality of Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington producers, he said.
These guys are professional ranchers who do a great job with their product, he said. The quality is higher here than in many other areas. Theyre the ones who keep buyers vitally interested, and thats what brings them back each week.
And of course, he added, people enjoy seeing their cattle turned into dollars.