BILLINGS, Mont. -- Bill and Jann Parker run the monthly horse auction at the Billings Livestock Commission.
The sale is a big deal for a big area. Promoters say it is certainly the largest monthly horse sale in the country. It's held the fourth weekend of every month on the North Frontage Road, east of Billings.
Billings Livestock is a company with a long-running tradition in horses. Legend has it, the Wolff brothers came up to the Billings area from Denver in the 1930s and partnered with the Langman clan, who ran the company for generations. The sales handle some 8,000 to 10,000 horses a year -- or 500 to 1,100 head on any given weekend. Several hundred people typically show up for the sale each month.
"This has been big horse country, between the natives that needed good horses to the military remount stations, and the cowboys that made their living" on horseback, Jann Parker said.
The August Special Catalog Sale was a good example, Jann said. During the most recent sale weekend, the sale ran through 701 horses. The top-selling horse was Lucky Lenas Charge -- an American Quarter Horse Association gray mare by sire Jet N Go, who was by Easy Jet. The "one-owner mare" was consigned by Allan and Shannon Olson of White River, S.D. Bonny Holt of Hemet, Calif., bought it for $10,000. The top five horses averaged more than $7,050. Other top sellers had colorful names like Poco Bueno Tac, Oh Oh Bubba and Watch This Guys.
Jann has roots in North Dakota's Red River Valley. A graduate of Fargo North High School, she is a daughter of the late Dexter Johnson, a North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer, who specialized in animal agriculture facility design. "We're big NDSU Bison people, what can I say?" said Jann, who was a public relations and mass communications student at NDSU when she landed a summer public relations job with a rodeo association in Billings. She just stayed.
She met Bill Parker -- a nationally ranked rodeo cowboy and roping specialist -- at a horse sale. The Parkers have managed the horse sale since 1998. The Pat Goggins family, which separately owns Public Auction Yards, also in Billings, and Western Livestock in Great Falls, repurchased the Billings Livestock facility in 2003 and remodeled it.
The Billings Live Horse Sale is held every month except December. Every month has a feature. In August, it was barrel and performance horses. September was a Cow Country Classic Catalog Sale and fall rope horse special.
The sale brings in buyers and sellers from Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, but she rattles off a number of other western states. "Utah is big," she said. Billings is a big market, yes, but the horse market changes. She acknowledges a big catalog sale in Clovis, N.M., and another in Shawnee, Okla., are also big players in the western horse scene.
One difference is that Billings will sell "loose horses," a horse sold for whatever reason -- no warranties, no guarantees.
"We'll have a couple hundred loose horses every month, in addition to the catalog sales, in addition to the previews, and everything else that goes along with it. We're kind of the whole package here," she said. "You can sell a horse that's been to the National Finals here. You can sell a top-end prospect here. But we also sell a loose horse here."
On Oct. 26 and 27 the horse sale has another performance horse feature with an indoor preview. From September to April or May, it often holds a second preview at a nearby leased HorsePalace Arena.
"We know that previews are a big deal and we really utilize previews to help market the horses," Jann said. "We feel that people need to have a good place to show their horse. And we feel that buyers need to be able to assess the horse and get a good look at what they have the opportunity to purchase."
The seller brings her horse, is assigned a pen, and has the option and opportunity to preview the horse for potential buyers.
"Nobody's making you, but it's a tool," she said. "Every day we need more tools in the toolbox to market, and that's the tool. So I'm going to preview my horse, going to be in my pen. I'm going to take phone calls and I'm going to let you look at my horse. I'm going to tell you that he does this or he doesn't do this. It's just like shopping."
The preview event starts at 8:30 a.m. "And we'll show you the cutters, the barrel horses, the rope horses, the saddle-and-ride horses and you can make your own assessment. We don't broadcast it on the Internet. We want buyers to come here and see these horses."
Sellers show and demonstrate their own horses. The facilities include a wash rack, the arena and some individual covered stalls, and other amenities.
A seller gets to describe their horse in a catalog. "They might say, 'My daughter showed this horse in 4-H,' or 'We've roped on this horse and hauled it to rodeos,' or 'We raised this horse, it's 2 years old and we think it's a great prospect,'" Jann said. "They list the pedigree and if they think it's a grade (nonpedigreed) horse, it's a grade horse."
The catalog closes on the 5th of each month. The staff gets the information on the Internet and compiles a catalog a week before the sale. The sale encourages YouTube videos, which allow potential buyers to decide whether they want to go to Billings for a sale. Jann and Bill study what's coming in the sale and "don't ever turn our cellphones off -- ever," she said, emphatically.
Horse sale values continue to be impacted by the closing of horse slaughter plants in September 2007. It coincided with a general U.S. economic slam. "The horse market spun as a result of that, and it has really, really affected the horse business. There's not a soul in the horse business it hasn't touched," Jann said.
There have been efforts to reopen horse processing facilities. Those run into opposition and red tape. The way Jann sees it, people on the East Coast are making decisions for people west of the Mississippi River.
Taking away choices for marketing has resulted in "far more thin horses" as owners are less able to feed them. There are far more horses turned out on public land, or otherwise abandoned, Jann said. While the Billings Livestock Horse Sale is in the business of increasing prices, it's a fact that today's best horses on average are bringing 35 cents a pound -- roughly a third of what they were before. Five years ago, there were 15 licenses to have horse sales in Montana, regulated both by the state and federal governments. Today there are about five left, Jann said.
"And what is beef bringing? $1.70?" she said.
Banning horse slaughter in the U.S. didn't change demand for horse meat, Jann said. It is the diet in Japan, Germany, France and Belgium, as well as countries in the former Soviet Union.
"There's still a demand for what we have. As a result, now it's going out of the country -- Canada and Mexico. People elsewhere eat it, it's cultural -- like the Scandinavians eating ... what's that smelly fish? Lutefisk! Bingo."
Mykel Taylor, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, in January 2013 published a market impact study of the closure of three U.S. slaughter facilities. Taylor and her associate, Elizabeth Sieverkropp, found that horses under $1,500 per head declined in value 12 percent to 16 percent after the end of U.S. slaughter. A Government Accountability Office study in 2011 showed a decline in price of 8.2 percent for animals of $1,400 per head to 23.5 percent for animals of $600 per head.
It has been technically possible to slaughter horses in the U.S. since November 2011, when the Federal Meat Inspection Agency 2005 amendment was reversed, allowing resumed federal inspection of the process. So far, no plants have opened.
The majority of Montana region horse processing goes to Canada, she said. "Nobody's holding a gun to your head, making you sell them to process markets," she said. "We still need a viable place to go with the old, the sore and the horses that are no longer of use. We live in America. If you want to call your vet and have your horse put down, do it. But if you feel you want to sell your horse loose, to let it go on and feed somebody, that should be your choice. Right now, they're going out of the country."