Have you seen “Barnyard”?
Stories from south Texas — Part III As Told To Katharyn Rodemann
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MY HUSBAND, DAVID, and I took our kids to see it at the movie theater a few weeks ago. It’s animated, and one of the main characters is a bull named Ben; he has a son, named Otis. But as you’re watching, you notice this: Both of them have udders. Udders! I couldn’t concentrate for the entire movie. Royse and Claudette noticed too, of course, and started pointing out every bull with an udder. Later, Ben is referred to as “a good cow,” and I practically came out of my seat. David told me I really needed to relax.
When cattle are your livelihood, it’s hard to believe someone could confuse bovine genders. A good understanding of bulls is crucial—and never more so for us than this month. All our work this year, all our energy, culminates on October 25 with our annual fall bull sale. We’re in the last stages of preparation: We’ve mailed out catalogs to potential customers, we’ve advertised in the cattle magazines, we’ve started the final conditioning of our bulls—good-looking bulls must be shiny and fat—and soon we’ll have our vet perform a “breeding soundness evaluation” to make sure they’re all guaranteed breeders.
A bull sale is, in a lot of ways, like a wedding. It’s the end goal of all our preparations: From planning the matings more than two years ago to selecting the caterer for the auction lunch, our every focus is on that one day. We must even prepare for the arrival of our guests, which in this case are some 250 potential customers. (Though, truth be told, I have yet to attend a nuptial party where the favors amount to 150-plus tons of beef.) It’s also nerve-racking. For us that one day is the proverbial putting of all our eggs in one basket. We used to sell private treaty, where customers would buy from us throughout the year, but we switched to having two annual sales—one in the fall and one in the spring—about five years ago. Not only does this system allow all our customers equal dibs when they arrive at the ranch, but it also lets us concentrate our efforts. Only there’s a lot more at stake too.
We have our own barn-and-pen setup here on the ranch specifically for our annual sales (though the barn does make a good place for kids’ birthday parties). Before the big day, my brother, Mitch, and I sort the bulls and divide them among the sixteen sale pens. We group them by similar characteristics, and each pen gets about 10 to 15 bulls. The day before the sale, we hold an all-day viewing, when the ranch is open to customers. It’s just like an art showing. People start arriving at eight in the morning, and some will study the bulls for hours. It’s really a sight to see—225 bulls, all looking their best.
But it’s sale day when the ranch really starts to fill with people; by ten o’clock there’s usually a crowd. We set up tables and chairs in the barn for everybody, with a catered lunch—this year it’s chicken-fried steaks—and a margarita machine. My mother and father greet people while my sister-in-law, Linda, signs them in and gives them a buyer number. Mitch and I mingle and answer any questions. We’ll see repeat customers (some who have been buying since before I was born) and new folks we’ve never met before. We’re also fortunate to have a set of family friends who regularly show up to help out and keep us all sane.
At one o’clock, it’s showtime. Everyone takes a seat, eyes on the auctioneer. The bidding starts. It goes by at lightning speed—a bull is in the ring less than a minute—and the excitement is palpable. The gates are banging, there’s dirt flying, we’re all watching the bulls. Each and every family member is fully engaged: Mitch does the talking about each bull (he loves the microphone), David operates the gate on the sale ring, and I write down all the sale figures (say, that Bull Lot 110 sold for $3,000 to Buyer 52). I then pass tickets with that information off to the kids—Royse and Claudette and my nieces, Morgan, Lauren, and Logan—who run them, literally, into our sales office, where Linda and a couple friends write up bills of sale for each buyer. Mom and Dad, they oversee to make sure we don’t mess up. We all have a job, and every minute counts.
Of course, when your mother and father are your bosses, your brother is your co-worker, you’re doing business with your husband and your sister-in-law, and you’re trying to keep tabs on your kids, working together can be easier said than done. To play on the wedding metaphor, we can become Ranchzillas. I can think of more than one year when I’ve either been fired by my mother or have quit the week of the sale. But I always head back to work the next morning. (Mitch has been fired too, and he hasn’t ever missed the next day either.) And then there are the unique demands on me on sale day: I may be talking to a customer about what type of bull to buy, for example, when suddenly I’ll see Royse hanging from the sale ring, or Claudette will be pulling at my leg wanting to go potty, or I’ll discover that my 76-year-old father, who is in dire need of new hearing aid batteries, needs my help. I doubt the Marlboro Man ever wondered if he still had on lipstick while trying to market 225 breeding-age Charolais bulls.
But you can’t miss your stride. A bull will sell for anywhere between $2,000 and $10,000, and if all goes well, it’ll be a half-a-million-dollar-plus day. Since it’s auction-style, you never know what will happen; if the wrong person gets up to go to the bathroom at the wrong time, a bull might sell for a lot less than you expected. Or two people may really like the same bull and he’ll go for a lot more. Some buyers may want one bull or five; others will buy thirty. You just don’t know.
The most amazing thing, though, is that in three hours we’re through. Then we close out the buyers, load out the customers who want their bulls that day, and set up a schedule with those who take advantage of our free delivery on purchases totaling more than $5,000. “It’s the service after the sale that counts” goes the saying, and that’s what we hold to. Then, once the last person has pulled out, we finish off the margaritas. We discuss the sale, eat dinner together, go home, scrub the kids—and collapse.