'From the first cow to the last' -- A day at the Stockmen's Livestock Exchange
Started in 1937 as Schnell's Dickinson Livestock Sales Company, the Stockmen's Livestock Exchange has been in the the Schnell family for generations. They built their reputation on selling quality livestock at top prices, and while the name has changed, the commitment to being the best option in the region has remained.
"We have top-notch facilities and our staff and crew know the business from top to bottom," Larry Schnell, owner and foreman of the Stockmen's Livestock Exchange, said. "My grandfather wasn't the first one in the region to open up a sales company, but it was one of the first in the North Dakota and Montana area to have a true livestock auction market."
A true livestock market
Entering the stockyard, the senses are assaulted by a stampede of conflicting smells and sounds. The stink of livestock and the aroma of fried foods; the sounds of bawling cattle and the chorus of passing trains—and through it all a steady stream of buyers and sellers, leaving muddy boot marks as they wind passed the kitchen and into the auction block.
Inside, the main showroom's aging semi-circle cattle pen formed what the hands call "the ring." The ring flexes with each opening of the large and heavy metal gate leading to the sorting pens outside. Cattle of all sizes enter the bidding room in batches based on size, temperament and sex.
Bulls are always shown alone.
Once they're within the arena, 72-year-old Jim Staiger, the ringman, keeps some semblance of order, whipping a flag from the perimeter to keep cows from climbing and bulls from charging.
Slightly farther up from the ring sits more than three dozen buyers, each seeking to outbid the other in an affair that's half gamesmanship and half livelihood. On a sunflower-seed-strewn wooden floor, where corn can spittoons are tucked near the legs of chairs, are scraps of paper, the remnants of lost bids.
Today's sale, the Feeder Cattle and Replacement Heifer Special, boasts an unusually high number of buyers.
"Today we'll sell about 1,000 to 1,600 head when all is said and done," Schnell said. "We might skip a sale or two, but we'll always have at least 52 sales a year."
This January sale lands square in the middle of what Schnell calls the "heavy season."
"Between October and March, we run about 3,000 to 5,000 head per sale," he said. "For 2017 we sold about 165,000, and last year we sold less than normal at 120,000 head. Over the years it averages to around 140,000."
Running cattle at breakneck speeds through the auction process isn't a one-man job, Schnell said. Schnell boasts a full staff of skilled hands, but acknowledged that the changing paradigm in North Dakota has made good help difficult to come by.
"What we are seeing, and have seen over the years, are that ranches and farms have gotten fewer and far between. Owners are quite a lot older than they were in years past and there's really very few young people on farms and ranches anymore," he said. "There's a lack of people that know cattle, that are able to work them. We're fortunate right now that we've got an almost full crew, but it's always a fight since the oilfield started up."
Schnell believes the problem with finding good help rests in the type of person needed for the job.
"We're not in the operation of doing one job. If you're doing something and something else needs to get done, we like people who take it upon themselves to get that done without having to always be told what to do," he said. "That's really what a farm kid is. You learn that you don't have a set job from the time you walk out the door on a farm. You do whatever needs to be done. That's the wonderful thing about farmers."
The hands who comprise the hard working crew at Stockmen's say that they love what they do, despite the difficult task of running an auction.
"It all depends on if you're sorting calves or cows on what the day's troubles will bring," Melvin Schoch, a sorter and rail hand, said. "The best part about working here are the coworkers. We enjoy working with each other and that's why we do it."
But the work isn't all pleasantries, according to Schoch.
"The hard part is getting old. You get to an age where you can't keep up with them wild cows anymore," he says. "You start talking 4,000 to 5,000 head on a good sale and we stay plumb busy in the back here. But you just learn to go with the flow."
Sorters, like Schoch, are responsible for taking the entire stock of cattle and sorting them into different pens based on condition and size, before running the batches into the chutes to enter the ring for the bidding process.
Glutton for punishment
Once inside the ring, the responsibilities shift to the ringman, Staiger, whose duties include ensuring safety of the cattle while in the ring, watching for missed bids by the auctioneer and passing bidding cards to new buyers as they enter the facility.
"I run the cattle in and out of the ring. I love what I do, it's pretty good work," Staiger said. "A lot of people buy the hat and the boots, but they're wannabes. It's not in their blood. I started on this operation in 1980 and I plan to work as long as my health is good."
Staiger's dressed in baggy green and black plaid shirt, stained with sweat and dirt. He moves dexterously, in arm's reach of an more than 1,000-pounds of bovine fury at most any given moment.
"The most trouble I've ever been in inside the ring was when I had this one (bull) take me," he said with a laugh. "I wasn't quite fast enough to make the shield chute when he got on me and took me over the cables. Sounds like just another day on the job, but it's a rough go."
Staiger said he feared no hard work.
"My age don't slow me none, I'm in there working the whole time, from the first cow to the last," he said. "I'm not afraid of hard work and I'm in shape."
Hard work makes for hungry bellies and during the occasional pause or hiccup in the action, Denise Hewson and Tammy Hurt run the kitchen which provides the buyers with a hearty meal and place to share farm stories.
"We go anywhere from 50 to over 100 meals we make here in the kitchen, depending on the size of the sale," Hewson said. "You gotta keep them boys fed so they can buy cattle."
The occasional joke and hearty laughs served as backdrops while Hewson and Hurt served up cups of black coffee and the occasional burger. When asked what the most requested dish at the counter is, Hurt smiled.
"If you knew what the most popular item we sell was you would die laughing," she said. "Chicken! Can you imagine?"
A cattle job, a people job
As the auction wound down with the final batches, buyers made their way to the window to make even on the day's purchases. There, a few shared how they fared and what exactly they look for in a cow.
Bronc Tippert of Squaw Gap, N.D., said temperament and size were the two biggest components to his placing a bid.
"Scored about 150 head today," Tippert said. "I look for a nice, young, not big fat cow. I'm trying to find the smaller and cheaper ones that I can fatten up and bring to market down the road."
Tippert added, "I tend to look for the ones that ain't high headed and looking to take ya. I prefer the nice and easy going cattle that I can work."
Others said that the temperament of the cattle wasn't a concern for them.
"If you can work cattle then you can work the hot ones too," Steve Weinberger of Mandan, N.D., said. "Everyone is different, some people don't like the hotter ones, but to me it don't bother. If they're good cattle, I don't care if they're hot or not."
Weinberger added, "With the market the way it is, I'm looking to put some pounds on them and turn a profit. Today I picked up about 100 head and that'll be it for the winter for me."
All in all, it was a productive day at the auction block for Schnell.
"No one got hurt, no cattle hurt and everything sold, so it's a good day," he said. "Some people might be surprised to hear it, but my job isn't a cattle job, necessarily—it's a people job. We have over 4,000 customers, and that's just on the selling side. We try to do good and today I think we did."