A Note from Cottonwood Corners

It is that time of the year when ranchers and farmers make plans to sell their crop of livestock which came into this world last winter. This is the season when families sort through all their records to hopefully make the right decisions which will result in a profit for all their previous hard work.  This is sale day season!

The auction is one of the oldest methods of marketing livestock in this country.  The first livestock auction in the United States of which any record is available was held in Ohio in 1836.  It was organized by Ohio livestock producers to improve the industry.

Another pioneer American livestock sale was established in 1853 at London, Ohio, by a group of men under the name of the Madison County Importing Company.  At their first sale in September 1853, they sold 15 bulls, 9 cows, 12 hogs, and 20 sheep — all imported — for $26,257.  They concluded that a monthly market was needed.

At the same time, cattle were sold to the highest bidder by regular auctioneers in the public square, or they were withdrawn, at the option of the owner.

Other early livestock auctions included the court-day sales in central Kentucky in the 1850’s; an auction started at Union, Iowa, in 1904; one in Berlin, Ohio, in 1911, and one at Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1912.

Development of these sales was slow at first but increased rapidly after 1931.  The period of greatest expansion was from 1932 to 1936.  In 1937 available information indicated that 1,317 livestock auction markets were operating in 37 states with an annual volume of several million head of livestock.  The heaviest concentration was in the Midwest.

A survey in 1937 showed that there were twenty-seven auction markets in South Dakota.  Thirteen states reported having more sale barns.  Iowa had the most, followed by Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.

During the depression, the livestock prices declined to such low levels that farmers desired to reduce marketing expenses and to lessen the risk by selling livestock near their home.  The local auction market fit in with this plan.

Another condition favorable to the development of the public auction market in some areas was the widespread droughts of 1933, 1934, and 1936.  These resulted in the forced movement of livestock from many sections of the Middle West to areas of the country where feed was more plentiful.

The development of the auction market in the Great Plains, as in most other sections as well, has come about largely since the depression and drought years following 1932.  A few of the present-day auctions, however, began operating as early as 1912.

The average number of cattle, calves, hogs, and sheep sold in 1936 — as reported by auctions in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota — varied from 19,259 head per auction in Kansas, to 60,016 head per auction in South Dakota.  Buyers included farmers, representatives of interior packers, small butchers, and traders.

Some auction barns were confronted with the misrepresentation of livestock at these sales.  The practice of running a little calf with a supposedly fresh milk cow just long enough to make it appear that the calf belonged to the cow was a common practice.

At a number of auctions, however, the auctioneer made statements indicating the condition of the animal offered for sale, and such warning phrases as “at the halter,” and “as is,” were used.

Today, both the owner of the sale barn and the auctioneer strive to run an honest and ethical operation.  They know that it takes a very short time to lose a good reputation but a long, long time to regain it.  Their reputation is the most important thing they have.

Since first established at Yankton in 1930, livestock auctions have become an increasingly important outlet for marketing South Dakota livestock.  The First Annual Report of the South Dakota Livestock Sanitary Board for 1937-1938 showed that there were thirty-four livestock auction agencies licensed and bonded within the state.

An analysis of the livestock auctions in South Dakota in the mid-1960s revealed that about seventy-two percent of their livestock came from within a fifty-mile radius.  During this time, many auctions expanded facilities and operations.  Over 80% of the auctions expanded yard capacity, about two-thirds expanded advertising programs, and half increased the distance from which they procure livestock.

Farmers and ranchers have always liked the social and educational aspects of the local auction.  It provides them the opportunity to meet friends and to discuss the merits of the animals sold in relation to the prices paid.  The large number of spectators at most auctions is an indication of the drawing power of the auction for the people in the community.

Without a doubt, the most meaningful conversations take place in that back row of seats at the local sale barn as friends and neighbors talk about what is important to them.

Also, where else can you find a better hot beef sandwich and delicious piece of lemon meringue pie?


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 4, 2019.

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