A DAY AT THE SALE YARD
Story by Mardi Ford
The metal chute rattles as the gate clangs shut on the rump of an indignant black bull.
"Haw! Get on in there!"
One of the hands at Intermountain Livestock tries his best to get the animal to move some. But this big boy insists on maintaining some personal space within the confines of the narrow chute. He refuses to move any closer to the seemingly identical rump in front.
"Bulls!" snorts Sharron Tarter, the brand inspector. "They are the problem children. That's why they go up last."
Bulls "go up last" at La Grande's weekly livestock sale, which starts around noon every Thursday at Intermountain Livestock. It's about 11 a.m. now and activity at the sale yard has been in full swing for several hours.
Tarter, of Elgin, has worked the sale as a brand inspector for many years. She loves her job, even though there are some long days during peak season.
"Probably our busiest time is fall," she says. "Some sales, we work 18 to 24 hours before we go home."
Even though winter is traditionally a slow time for the sale, right now the yard outside is swarming with activity. While there's no time to sit still for long, nobody seems to mind taking a little time out to explain things, either.
At check-in, everyone will be assigned seller numbers Â— from those coming in a pickup truck with a single cow, to semi's filled with dozens of feeder cattle.
Animals sold as singles, like the bulls, fetch more money. Singles go to the chutes where they'll be checked by Tarter, then each one is slapped with a back tag Â— a bright yellow sticker with a bar code and identifying numbers.
Tarter will also check paperwork for any discrepancies or oddities.
"We are really particular about our paperwork," she says.
Animals sold in lots will be assigned lot numbers and held in a group on the other side of the yard. Lots today vary in size from two or three to almost 30.
Hundreds of animals Â— mostly cattle, but some sheep, swine and even a horse Â— will move through the sale yard today. As well as thousands of dollars, too, injecting income into the county's economy. And it's the off season.
Ringing through the frigid air, the clang of metal gates mingles with the calls of yard hands herding the cattle through an intricate maze of chutes, pens and gates.
The earthy smells of mud and hay blend crisply with the animal smells of cattle and horses. All blend together in a satisfying way.
Inside the office, some folks stop at the buyer window to be assigned a bid number for the auction. Others mingle in the halls, or inside the auction arena, and wait for the sale to begin.
In the diner, a popular place to gather and grab some chili or a cheeseburger, the buzz of conversation is brisk and frequently accented with good-natured laughter.
Inside the auction arena, seats have begun to fill. Although the crowd is mostly men; plenty of husbands and wives, a pair of girls in tight-fitting Wranglers, and even a few families take a seat and wait.
A young man looking for a spot holds a diaper bag with one arm and a tiny toddler in the other. Another young man, already seated, gets his attention. He makes his way over and sits down, bouncing the baby on his knee. It seems almost everybody knows almost everybody else. For some, this is a weekly must-do.
Anticipation charges the arena when, up in the auction block, a heavyset man wearing a baseball cap takes his seat behind the microphone. Down on the floor of the arena, two other men wait at opposite ends. They will man the doors, herding the livestock in and out.
The floor of the arena itself is a huge scale. The weight of the two men working the doors has already been accounted for. Once in a while, the action will stop, and the scale will be checked and, if necessary, adjusted. It's easy for the huge scale to get off base with thousands of pounds jarring and stomping on it.
Abruptly, the first lot of three cows is brought in and the auction begins. The relaxed atmosphere ramps up a gear as focus shifts to the fast-paced action down on the floor.
For hours, livestock moves in Â— livestock moves out. The auctioneer runs a steady stream of, at first, unintelligible vocalizations. Training the ear to follow his words is an art in itself. Concentration is key in keeping up with what takes place in the arena.
Once the bid winds down, the animals are herded outside where cowboys, some on horseback, will move them where they belong. Everybody knows exactly what his or her job is and they do it efficiently.
Some livestock will leave today, some will stay in the yard for a night or two awaiting shipment out of the county or state. The large part-time crew that loves to work the sale will go home.
By the weekend, the sale yard will be pretty quiet again Â— for a day or two, anyway.
Next week, they'll do it all over again.