As I stepped into the sale barn, all of my muscle memory hit high gear.
The auctioneer was high-speed hyping the cows.
The seats were packed – padded seats down near the ring where the big buyers sat, mid-row folding chairs for mid-level spenders and the high benches for the watchers and worriers.
Men, mostly, sat stone-faced, periodically pulling out calculators, punching numbers and shaking their heads.
Bid spotters frantically scanned the audience, afraid to miss a bid just in case one of the watchers or worriers finally made a decision to go for it.
The whole place reeked of tense anxiety and insecurity.
I climbed the steps to a high bench, deferring respect to those who were likely to spend more money, knowing I would try to low-ball the cattle moving through the ring.
I had not been to an auction to buy cows for years. Consistent genetics influences meat quality so I keep heifers from my herd instead of introducing new cows as replacements.
But the sounds, smells and sights brought back memories of raising my hand as a promise to pay.
The first time I ever raised my hand, it was in self-defense.
Five of us undergrads had purchased a few 2-year-old heifers as part of our ag economics class. I think the professor was attempting to convince us that ranching only leads to bankruptcy, but the spring market was on the rise and we thought we could make some money. I was the inexperienced newby, but my fellow students had grown up on ranches so I deferred most decisions to them.
Four of our heifers gained weight on our carefully metered ration, but one of them grew wider, not fatter. Every day, this tiny heifer became more obviously pregnant and more obviously likely to have difficulties delivering that calf.
We needed to sell her and sell her fast.
My partners hauled her to the auction barn, but none of them could stay to watch the sale. It would be up to me to protect our investment.
I calculated our break-even price: 59 cents per pound. The market would easily pay that price for a healthy, growing heifer. We didn’t have a healthy, growing heifer, though.
The ring man brought our heifer in. The auctioneer groaned in his microphone, then started the bidding at 27 cents. Nobody bid.
I raised my hand. The auctioneer raised his eyebrows at me. I nodded confirmation.
After what seemed like eons, someone over to the right bid against me.
I raised my hand again.
Tentative dueling hands jumped the price to 58 cents.
I raised my hand again, crossing my fingers for one more bid from the right, hoping I did not just invest even more money in my lost cause.
The auctioneer stopped the bidding and looked at me.
“Honey, this heifer is about to calve. Are you sure you want to bid?” Unprecedented advice from a man who makes a living by getting the highest price.
I was sure I wanted to get 59 cents for that heifer. I nodded my head.
“Okay,” he shrugged, beginning his auctioneer chatter once again.
The mysterious hand to my right raised his hand, promising 59 cents.
The auctioneer looked my way again.
I sat on my fingers and wished Mr. Right all the best with that soon to be teenage mother.
A few years later when I worked on a ranch in Utah, I became one of those auction watchers and worriers.
Ladd, the rancher I worked for, and I spotted 20 Holstein heifer calves outside the auction ring.
“Dairy prices are skyrocketing. We could get rich on those heifers,” Ladd said. “We’ll just feed them over the winter, put a bull with them and sell them as bred heifers.”
Ladd’s idea sounded bomb-proof to me so we hauled those dairy heifers home and started pouring the hay to them. Expensive hay.
After a few months of growing those heifers, we discovered why they had sold so cheap.
They were freemartins, born without reproductive organs, unable to breed.
Our get-rich scheme suddenly turned to a minimize-our-losses scheme.
Downhearted, we loaded the heifers and hauled them to the auction.
As Ladd and I picked our seat midway up in the auction barn, we spotted a familiar face we had not seen in quite a while.
Ladd’s cousin, Junior, filled us in: That was Big Man, a cattle buyer recently released from prison after bouncing bad checks. Big Man was back in business and he intended to show the world. He strutted like a barrel-chested rooster, back and forth in front of the padded seats closest to the ring.
I related our tale of woe to Junior. Without a word, he stood, walked over to Big Man, leaned against the cable fence of the auction ring and whispered low.
A few minutes later, our shiny, well-fed Holstein heifers walked into the ring.
Big Man started the bidding.
Junior sat next to us, his hands between his legs. Two fingers flashed at the auctioneer.
Big Man never hesitated. His hand flew up into the air.
Junior responded. Again and again, the bids flew. Big Man turned to try to spot his competition. Junior’s demeanor never changed.
Big Man took those expensive heifers home.
I grinned at the psychology of the auction barn, thanked Junior and bought a pickup with my half of the proceeds.