Of the Baker City Herald

Sara Jury was doing her best Mary Lou Retton impersonation atop what passes for a ranch's parallel bars Thursday.

Jury, one of a group of FFA volunteers from Baker High School, had to be at her nimble best for the Thomas Angus Ranch annual production sale. It was her job to straddle two parallel bars with her arms wrapped around a higher set of bars. All this while clutching a spray bottle of WD-40 and a curry comb.

When her fellow FFA members would lead cattle into what might be called the Jury box, Sara's job was to spray oil on the cow or bull's back to make it shiny, comb off the hay and crud she could reach, then stomp on its back when the head catch was released and the cow could take its place in the auction line.

Jury downplayed the agility she displayed in helping move the cattle along in a timely way.

andquot;It's not hard,andquot; Jury said during a brief break. andquot;The panels get covered in oil, and they're a little slick. We have 40 seconds to make the cow look the best we can.

andquot;It's a little bit tiring by the end of the sale but it's better than sitting in school all day.andquot;

Contrary to what city slickers might think, the bulls are actually better behaved in the chutes than the heifers, Jury said.

andquot;Some of the heifers are always trying to jump out of the chute,andquot; she said. andquot;They had to put plywood up to stop them from trying that.andquot;

Erica Harper, a sophomore and FFA volunteer at the sale, said her years of working with large animals has pointed her toward a possible career as a horse chiropractor.

andquot;When you work their muscles, it relaxes them, just like it does with humans,andquot; she said.

But for now, her job was to fit cattle, just as fast as humanly possible.

andquot;This just makes them more presentable,andquot; she said, her own bottle of WD-40 and curry comb at the ready. The combs, with rows of menacing-looking metallic teeth, are effective grooming tools especially in the hands of young FFA fitters.

Lori Thomas credited the FFA students and the Baker County Cattlewomen in helping to make this year's sale by far the most profitable of the ranch's 31 sales. In the end, the sale raised $1,726,500, by far the most ever.

That whopping total can be attributed both to record cattle prices and to the high number of cattle that entered the sale ring 598 in all.

andquot;We usually have about 450 head,andquot; Thomas said. andquot;We're very thankful and thrilled with how it went.andquot;

Despite the blistering sale pace, Thomas took time Thursday morning to speak to the Leadership Baker class taking their annual agricultural day pilgrimage. This year, the 18-member class made stops at MacKenzie Quarter Horses, Agristar organic potatoes, Maxwell mint, and the Rohner dairy.

Thomas told the class how laptop computers make record-keeping much easier for modern producers. When she's checking for pregnancies, she's also keying in data and e-mailing it to the American Angus Association, which processes the data, puts it on the the official registry, then ships it back to Thomas. Even ultrasound data is scanned and shipped the same way that traditional data, including birth weight and lineage, is done.

The ranch retains one-third interest in every bull sold, she said, because they are sold so young. The bulls that develop especially fast say, with exceptional ribeye potential thus help Thomas' bottom line.

Fully 26 states as well as buyers from Australia and Canada were in attendance at the sale. Thomas said that cattle has been shipped to the Parker Ranch in Hawaii in past years, aboard a feed-strewn container.

Marty Mussard, a doctoral candidate who manages the beef and sheep facilities at Ohio State University and is the brother of Baker City resident Ted Mussard, managed a few unsuccessful bids, but returned home with no new Angus to add to the university's herd. The visit represented a andquot;working vacationandquot; as he visited his brother and his family, he said.

Mussard said he met Bob Thomas on a fishing trip to Montana in 1997 while serving an undergraduate internship at a cattle ranch in the Big Sky state. Although he's returning to his native Buckeye state alone, he has fond memories of Thursday's sale.

andquot;I was impressed with the quality, consistency and hospitality of the Thomases,andquot; he said. andquot;Their (embryo transplant) operation is the very top of the line. There were maybe 12 females I thought I could afford, but it didn't work out.andquot;