The Livestock Auction

Black Angus yearlings are raised to go to auction, to eventually be “processed” into various cuts of meat.  Last Monday, I helped my friend take 16 yearlings to auction in Winchester, Virginia.

Before the cattle were herded into the farm’s bullpen for sorting, we worked for days preparing its fences, the narrow chute, and loading ramp.  These areas were in pretty sad shape and needed to have posts replaced, boards installed, and more.  My friend had used curved areas in the loading pen at his mountain farm and we know from his experience and our research that cattle prefer moving in curved chutes.  So, before we did anything to the bullpen, we evaluated what facilities he had and what we could do to make it less stressful for the cattle to move in those areas.  There’s an old barn on his farm that’s falling apart and we used boards from that building to repair the bullpen.  Corners were eliminated by nailing boards or anchoring gates at 45 degree angles.  Finally, we placed heavy timbers above the chute at intervals to prevent the yearlings from jumping over the fence.

The cattle were herded into the bullpen by feeding them hay there.  From the larger pen, they were herded into a smaller one where the cattle were sorted.  Yearlings were guided to a smaller area off the larger bullpen and cattle not headed for the auction were released into the pasture.  We were successful in gathering all but one of the yearlings, who managed to jump over the fence at a weak area in the bullpen and escape to freedom.  I guess it’s really true about the grass being greener on the other side – once he made his escape, “Houdini” stood in the adjoining meadow and bawled for the other yearlings in the bullpen.  All the other captive yearlings looked longingly at their friend but I stood in front of the weak section of the fence, an effective yearling repellant.  Later, when the young bulls had been isolated in the smaller workpen, one of Houdini’s BIG buddies, whom we named “Mr. Personality”, decided he needed to try to jump over its almost six-foot-tall gate.  Three times.  This is a very large, stocky bull calf with a Neanderthal brow; when he glares at you (he does nothing but glare at you), it looks as if he’s furrowing his eyebrows in supreme disapproval.  A fellow rancher who brought him to my friend’s farm called him “Crazy” and said he put all of his ranch hands on the top of the fences with his antics.  When Mr. Personality first arrived at the ranch, he bucked and kicked his way out of the livestock truck.  Whew!  Now, my friend told me of this bull’s history after I’d been on the other side of that gate, swatting at him to retreat with a 54″ long, thin fiberglass sorting pole.  That’s about as effective as slapping at him with a fly swatter.

When we were securing the chute and loading ramp, my friend and I kept thinking about Mr. Personality – we figured if any yearling was going to try and test the pen, it would be him.  Much to our surprise, however, he went into the livestock truck without incident.  Our preparation had paid off nicely in a smooth, fast loading of the yearlings.

Once the cattle were loaded, it was off to Winchester, a two-hour drive from Seneca Rocks.  We were concerned about being late for the auction but when we arrived, there were dozens of other livestock trucks waiting to unload.  My friend’s cattle were unloaded easily and placed in a holding pen inside the facility.  When I closed the gates and locked them in securely with a chain, I felt like a teacher on the last day of school.  Every year, when I waved goodbye to my students as their buses pulled away, I felt a twinge of sadness.  And relief.  And pride.  Same thing with these Black Angus.

My friend took me into the holding area of the auction.  We strode along a catwalk above the different pens, looking down upon the cattle.  There were yearlings like ours, and old cattle.  Two had horns.  One huge Black Angus bull was alone in a narrow chute – I was informed that the confines of the chute kept him calm as he was rather mean and could injure the workers.  Different breeds of cattle were housed in the pens, too.  Bulls tended to have their own, separate pens.

While it was fascinating to see the different animals, I found it sad, too.  The cattle seemed distressed and they mooed in a different way than I’ve heard before.  It just sounded sad.  So I asked my friend if we could see the auction arena and we headed in that direction.

Inside a small ring covered with a thick padding of sawdust, two llamas were being auctioned – a pregnant female and a male.  I really hadn’t expected to see llamas at a cattle auction!  I don’t think anyone else had, either, as the bidding was not exactly fast and furious.  One farmer in the audience explained to another beside him that this really wasn’t the week for exotic animals, that the owners hadn’t received the word.  But the llamas did find new owners and left the ring.

I found it interesting that well-behaved cattle fetched a higher bid than ill-mannered cattle.  (I know there’s an analogy to people in there!)  One pregnant female tried to bolt over the gate and her antics meant that she couldn’t command a higher price.  One hand-raised bull with horns, noticeably docile, still didn’t get as much as non-horned bulls.

What I was completely unprepared to see were newborn calves auctioned so soon after birth.  At least two still had dried umbilical cords dangling from their abdomens.  One looked so lost and forlorn as it wobbled around a tiny section of the arena.  I wanted to buy them all, bring them back to the farm, bottle-feed them, and love them!  It was so sad to see these little ones torn from their mothers’ sides.  My friend explained that Holstein cows are bred so that they’ll continue to produce milk.  While I understand the biology and economics behind that, it saddens me to think that the calves can’t be nourished by their mothers.  I prayed that the newborn calves would be a youngster’s future 4-H project.

You may be wondering how I can feel so sad for the Holstein calves when I helped get the Black Angus yearlings to auction.  At least the Black Angus calves are kept with their mothers for a year.  I know that they’re sold to get more weight on them before they’re “processed”.  I don’t like the idea of slaughtering the cattle, especially as I’ve grown to love the herd.  But at least I can help keep the cattle content and healthy while they’re across the river at my friend’s farm.

We didn’t stay for the whole auction and I’d like to return sometime.  The holding pens remind me of an airport terminal and the way the handlers move and sort the livestock is quite impressive.  Only one handler bothered me – he seemed a bit too free with his electric cattle prod.  But I think he overheard me when I mentioned it to my friend.  After I’d spoken, I noticed that he and another handler were looking up at me.  The cattle prod wasn’t used after that at all.  Good.

I certainly didn’t want that handler using that prod on my friend’s cattle.  If people are going to raise cattle for their own benefit, the very least we should do is treat them humanely.

Remember Mr. Personality?  He showed his true colors at the livestock auction, too.  When he was being sorted and transferred between two pens, the bull became highly irritated with the whole process – as well as the handlers behind those flimsy sorting poles.  After a gate had been opened, the young bull tore out of the pen and turned right so fast that he went down on his side.  Snorting in rage, he quickly scrambled to his feet and headed straight for the nearest handler.  This guy had obviously been around cattle a whole lot longer than I’ve been.  He knew that waving a little fiberglass pole would be as effective at stopping Mr. Personality as a fence of moistened tissue paper.  That handler bolted right up the fence nearest him and held on to a tall post for dear life.  The other livestock workers laughed and teased good-naturedly, but I think inside they were all greatly relieved that they hadn’t been in that bull’s sights.   Maybe they were recalling similar incidents in which they were doing the fence climbing.

Note to self:  practice speedy fence climbing and evasive maneuvers.  The Marines call it “situational awareness”.  I see a real benefit to using it on the farm.

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