A look inside the community feeder calf auction in West Branch

Sometimes the view behind the scenes is the most revealing. Here is a look at a calf auction and a peek behind it that reveals the heart of the people involved.

for decorative purposes only
Photo credit: Kable Thurlow, MSU Extension

After checking the pens of cattle, attendees settled into the auction barn for the 78th Annual West Branch Feeder Sale in October 2022. Some women and children — but mostly men with ball caps and boots — a few cowboy hats and some Amish straw hats could be seen in the bleachers around three sides of the sale ring.

Pens of 5-10 head of cattle, plus or minus five, were brought in in order. The auction catalog showed the consignor, pen number, breed of cattle, number of head, total weight and average weight. They are brought from the pens, lighter ones beginning around 400 pounds sell first, then the heavier calves upwards to 1,000 pounds Typically, cattle close in weight are grouped together. These are cattle that usually were born this past winter or spring at the farms of producers throughout northeast Michigan. Steers sell first, followed by heifers.

In the sale ring, the group of calves moves like waves, all together, in the shavings, stirring up dust while the auctioneer speaks the strange language that is the familiar chant of an auctioneer. It is a language punctuated by some numbers, and a lot of indiscernible syllables as he encourages people to bid and bid again. Some bid with the slightest hand or head movement, others more publicly, each thinking about the total weight in the pen as they bid in dollars per pound.

“Pen 124 sold for $1.91 to bidder ‘X,’” the auctioneer shouts as the next group is being brought into the ring. In the stands, bidder X is marking their bidder card to keep track of how many they have purchased, maybe trying to fill a trailer or a truck.

In the office, the records of each purchase are tallied by faithful volunteers who can’t miss a penny. When bidder X comes to the window to pay their bill, each purchase is already recorded and summed so that the bill is known. As the adding machine cranked out its last set of numbers, this sale had brought in over $610,000.

This is a sale of preconditioned calves, meaning calves that have been weaned 30-60 days, vaccinated and boosted according to the protocol adopted by the association of consignors. These calves will go to feedlots or pastures in-state and out-of-state, ready to grow and be finished out.

The reputation of the auction is strong because of the breeders who consign calves and because of the adherence to their common protocols. These are families that raise beef cattle. They run a herd of cows bred in a limited window of time to a bull for which the heritable traits have been studied and matched for their herd and their market. Great deliberation is given to purchasing bulls and better genetics bring better prices.

This auction is not the only option these producers would have to market their calves. They could market them at auction in Clare, Gaylord or elsewhere downstate. They could also sell them direct to a buyer who assembles groups for feedlots. Instead, for 78 years, producers have come together to plan this auction, to repair and fix up the facility, to weigh-in cattle and to receive cattle for sale. They put in much of the sweat equity to maintain this auction. Why?

We could point to prices that they get which are better than other options. We could point to reduced costs of selling animals including the lack of a yardage fee. We could point to the quality that they have been building and will continue to build. And while all these are true, it really is about a sense of community.

Community is the willingness to work with others for mutual benefit, whether or not the individual benefits as much. Community is the recognition that we are better when we have each other. Community is when people with differences overlook those to remember what they have in common. Community builds, unites, and accomplishes what those going solo cannot accomplish, and they do so because they look beyond short-term to the long view.

In this community we find Ed, who sold his cows a year ago still showing up to help. Theo and Carol still faithfully attend though they haven’t had cattle for several years, bringing soup or baked goods for those working. Marty and Arlen are out in the cattle pens moving cattle, rather than being in the auction barn. Paula, having taken vacation days from her job, is in the office. Many others fill in to help get cattle from the correct pens loaded on the right trucks following the auction. Their actions demonstrate their sense of community.

America needs people with a sense of community. Ones who look out for one another, ones who help one another, ones who will work with others. We need people, and we need you, to be community-minded, community-spirited, and to foster a community in action. This local auction and the people making it successful certainly demonstrates a strong sense of community. And that was great to see and experience.

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