Centuries ago, when barter was evolving into commerce, the trade policy was summed up as caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. It was his own fault if the purchaser ended the deal with a balky horse or a barren cow. In general, dealers considered it respectable-even admirable-to cheat the customer. So what did the buyers do to turn the tables? The smart ones began moving westward, and the farther west they went, the smarter they grew. By the time they hit the American range country the boot was entirely on the other foot, and buyers were the terror of the industry.
Through the cold of winter and dry famine of summer you fought from daylight till dark to keep the calf crop alive and thriving. You mortgaged the future to feed your little bunch. You drew on all-your strength and endurance to protect your cattle from disease and pests. When they reached their prime, you put forth limitless effort to gather them and provide a good holding place. Then came the climax: finding a buyer, one fair enough to allow you to appease creditors and stay in the business.
No matter how affable a fellow you met, the minute you propositioned him to buy your cattle, he shed honor and generosity as he would his coat if preparing to wrestle. It was immediate "king's excuse" from friendship-or even kinship. He might have been your brother-in-law, or maybe, since you were a woman, your suitor. No matter. If he considered buying livestock, his whole mind was on getting the bottom dollar.
Now, in the more civilized present, when I find myself in a bind for money, happily I think of the weekly livestock auction and my spirit lifts, if not to heaven's gate, at least upwards to bold bright self-confidence. No more cowering and fawning and half-hearted haggling. Any week the financial going gets tough, I throw the rack on the pickup, load on a cow, or two or three head of young stuff too fat to merit keeping or too poor to make the weather hazards, and off I go, sure of a pleasant welcome from the sale operators who at times go so far as to complement me on the condition of my cattle. What old cattle buyer ever did that!
I sit in dignity-if not comfort-on the hard bench and watch the bidders go as high for my cattle as they do for anybody else's of like quality. Whatever cutting back is done comes naturally, not as a personal penalty for being a poor bargainer or a member of the needier sex. No cause to burn with shame and resentment when an animal bearing my brand fails to make top grade. Nobody sneers because my calf has too much white on his back, or too little width to his skull. The bidders may sit on their hands but at least they don't gloat over me in person. I don't have to be party-of-the-second-part to humiliating arguments and niggling disputes. Both sides can relax in decent silence.
Oh, yes, I know what goes on. The auction, after all, is a human concern; of people, by people, for people. And if there ever is a time when people are excessively human, it is when money is involved-especially in a livestock trade. At slack times most of the buyers at an auction are local butchers and packers. If there is a shortage of cattle, they may go so far as to bid against each other seriously. But in a world where things are as they are rather than as they should be, competitive bidding on livestock is sometimes less than reality. I sat behind a row of buyers one afternoon and restrained an impulse to clop one over the head with my loaded handbag. My good old cow was being switched around in the ring and the auctioneer was getting some lively response. Then this fellow leaned across his neighbors to shut up his rival by saying: "I let you have that bull. Now gimme the cow!" At slow times when there is no out-of-town competition, there is a maddening (to the seller) kind of buddyism in the bidding. "Let's stay under twenty today," you seem to hear them saying. Or, "Them ole shelly cows orten to bring mor'n six-eight cents."
When range feed is in sight (the desert blooming with the lush green and lavender filaree) cattle are hard to come by and auctions fulfill their avowed purpose of offering an open market. Prosperity is in the air, keyed up to the clatter of the spieler and the yelps of the ring men. Your cattle have as good a chance as the next one's, and you needn't worry because salesmanship was left out of your make-up.
But never, never, can you lean back with a comfortable feeling that you have it made. The human error factor pops up at auctions behind the scenes, and it has a special sting. If you sell directly to a buyer, your bollixes are your own fault, and maybe you can learn a lesson. At a busy animal mart, you are at the mercy of other people's foul-ups.
I still burn at the memory of what happened to Old Strawberry, a good, big cow who had been a pillar of the little place for years. She was fat and had a good steer calf by her side. Arriving at the unloading chute at ten-thirty, I felt relieved to think I'd get through early and be home before dark. At the afternoon auction they receive cattle until twelve noon. In the semi unloading just ahead of me, I spotted a tall yellow Brahma cow, noting mentally that I could look for my cow to be sold soon after that one went through the ring. It happened to be a big day. Time wore on to three o'clock before the yellow Brahma came through. Now, thought I, my turn next. But no. More and more cows were turned in-scores of them. One outfit had sent in sixty-five cows, and they were passed through the arena one at a time. Hours passed. The crowd thinned. The number of buyers lessened as quotas were filled. Still no Strawberry. Five o'clock, the usual closing time, came and passed. They began running through the lame and the halt and the blind. The only bidders left were those looking for scrubs, the pitiful ones that are "given away." At five-thirty, to an empty house, the last two head were shoved in; Old Strawberry and her calf, having shrunk all day in the small shadeless pen without water. The hurt remains yet, though I never knew who goofed, for I never went there again.
I didn't have to. For there is a morning auction across town on the same day. Naturally, it has an earlier deadline. Doomed by sex to house and yard chores and not always fortunate enough to have more corral hands than my own, and being obliged, part way on my journey, to make contact with a livestock inspector whose duties and activities are not confined to his office, I am often not quite under the wire. There has grown up a joke, a neighbor told me, around the sales place. When they see me backing up to the deserted unloading chute they say: "Here's that little green truck. Now we can begin the sale."
They are friendly people, favoring me with patience. But, alas, a worm lurks at the core of even this golden apple. Once I arrived with three nice yearlings, one of them not weaned, after the curtain had gone up. My twelve-year-old boy-companion Preston was sent in to ask one of the brothers in charge if we were too late. The one I know better came out himself to help me unload and tag my cattle. Relieved and appreciative, I went in and sat on a lower bench to watch the sale. I saw all the cows and calves and bulls and yearlings go through the ring-all except mine-saw the crowd rise to go, and heard the auctioneer say: "See you next Saturday, folks."
I got up and stood by the railing until my friend saw me. He was covered with embarrassment. He had shoved my yearlings into an out-of-the-way pen and forgotten them. "Leave them here," he insisted, "I'll feed them good and sell them next week. Won't cost you anything."
The little steer, just cut away from his mother, would lose weight and some hireling would or would not feed them right; but there was nothing else to do. As he had promised, next week the steers were sold, and I received a check with nothing deducted for feed. Months later I sent in some calves by the Nephew. From the check given to him, there had been deducted the feed bill for the yearlings sold in the spring. Perhaps the other brother took a more profit-wise view of the affair. Or some vigilant bookkeeper may have saved the old slip all summer to wait for my next shipment. In commerce as in war, somebody is going to get hurt.
There are several chances that you take. Modern gadgetry and equipment-all such facilities-are made for machines, not animals. The approach to the auction corrals is arranged for the convenience of trucks, not cattle. To unload, you do not drive into an enclosed area where your livestock may be secure: you back up to a platform wide-open to the street and take your chances passing frightened animals across and into the corral chute. At times, only a town youngster or two is available to man the unloading gates. Occasionally a wild cow or Brahma bull gets away and makes headlines by trampling an innocent bystander, or by showing off the roping and riding skills of the local peace officers. Slow one morning getting around to the back of my pickup where I had placed it at the platform, I was stunned to see that two youngsters assigned to the job had untied the endgate of the truck and jerked it out-without remembering to swing open the guard rails from truck to chute. There on the landing stood my two steers with nothing between them and the North Star but a four-foot drop and a city full of traffic and domiciles. When I complained later to the proprietor, he said, shaking his head: "You can't get no help these days." Fortunately, my calves were gentle ones raised around the home corral, and they waited patiently to be taken care of. Only one time, over the decades, have I lost an animal while unloading.
Whatever the hazards, I'm still all in favor of auctions. So, I should think, would be any small rancher who was around in the old days, when buyers were autocrats and had to be handled. What old-timer does not sigh when he thinks of trying to sell cattle back in the Thirties, and farther back? When his cattle were gathered, he put on his best clothes and went out to hunt a buyer. He haunted hotel lobbies and stockyards-beating around the bush when talking to other ranchers, for in those days if you found a good buyer, you held him close to your chest like a winning poker hand. In case a generous neighbor or pure luck put you next to one, you hurried home, got up a few of the best ones for a sample, and waited for the buyer to come out and make a trade.
Often when the buyer came to see the cattle, he brought along an experienced commission man; or, if a commission man himself, his backer. Usually the woman of the ranch had fixed a good dinner or made a lemon pie or whatever was her specialty. But until the trading was done, the cold-fish buyers would have nothing but water-or maybe coffee. They would make no commitment to sociability.
The weaners or steers or mixed yearlings were bunched in the smallest corral to make them look bigger and more uniform; also to give less chance for individual inspection. The mother cows left bawling outside the corral were good ones. The corrientes (the mediocre) had been shunted off out of sight at dawn. The buyers must get the impression the herd was of high quality.
When the personnel involved arrived at the corral, the cattle were stared at a while in silence, the buyer then and there making up his mind and his argument. The companion of the buyer climbed up on the fence out of the way, but within helping range. The henchmen of the seller found jobs around close, just to be handy. There was no knowing what might happen when the parties of the first and second parts got down on their hunkers with sharpened wits and whittling knives and joined in the most cold-hearted contest of wills ever known to man: that of getting ahead of the other fellow in a trade.
To this day, I am touched by the anguish I endured on a black morning in the last months of the depression when I first crossed swords with a cattle buyer all by myself. My banker, who was also his banker and on a much larger scale, had sent this trader out to look at my spring "harvest." I had sixteen heifers and twenty steers corraled in a neighbor's little shipping pen on the highway two miles-no road-from my place. Having done some research, I had made up my mind to get six cents for the heifers and seven for the steers. My undoing was that I was silly enough to come right out and name my figures on the first go-round--a deadly mistake in the game of trading.
The buyer, a tall, dark, prosperous-looking man, came early, at eight o'clock on the dot, bringing with him his tall, dark, prosperous looking wife-making the odds two to one at the start. The moment they looked at me (and this is a fact) they positively beamed at each other-an easy mark!
Of course, according to ground rules, there was a chill in their opening amenities as they took their adversary's measure. Then in true cattle dealer fashion he led off with melancholy remarks about the unfavorable weather conditions, the long spring drought, the dry forecast ahead, the bare country out my way, no feed, too many cattle; all bad, bad, bad. It was my first hour upon the boards in this role, but I knew vicariously all the verses to the depressing pitch. I missed all the cues by holding my tongue, which was not Hoyle; silence didn't give him a hint of how soft I was getting. He sat beside his wife on the edge of the water trough and looked at the calves bunched up in a corner eyeing him with distrust. Deeper shadows of sorrowful disapproval fell across his unmerry face. His mouth drew down and his eyes squinted. The sight of my pretty-to me they were pretty-young animals gave him the blues. Gloom, like brown smelter smoke, settled all over the hillside. I found it hard to breathe. At last, sighing, for the moment of sacrifice had been reached, he asked me what I wanted for "them little calves."
Huskily, I managed to inform him that I wanted six cents for the heifers and seven for the steers. Apparently stunned by such gall, he grunted as if in pain, shook his head, and got out a cigarette to revive himself. Now came the second big scene in his play-acting. Why, the day before he had received two hundred head of good white-faces for a nickel straight across. John Doe and Joe Doakes had bought the top yearlings from the grass country for six cents. He turned to his wife, who nodded her corroboration. I was out of line!
It was a contest in which knowledge didn't give me power. I knew they were out to wear me down and get cheap cattle. I also knew that I had no talent or taste for haggling and no skill for evading it if forced upon me. I was dumb with humiliation and disgust.
At my silence, he went into his third scene by getting up and walking about among my gentle calves, pointing out defects as if I had deliberately hidden them to horn-swoggle him. One had a red neck, which, before Santa Gertrudis and Braford and such breeds were introduced into the country, used to be a mortal affliction in prospective beef animals. Each Hereford was supposed to have six to twelve inches of white on the back of his neck: two of mine had so much white they were line-backed. One was leggy, too much daylight under his belly. One was about to get pinkeye. I knew, though I couldn't dispute about it, that all this had nothing to do with the quality of meat represented by the yearlings. It was all part of the hanky-panky of bargaining.
Came the climax. He made his offer; five cents straight
"I'm sorry," I murmured, having no stomach for dickering. "Thank you for coming."
I went to open the gate to turn my calves-which stood for the money I was desperate for-back into the little holding pasture. The offer rose to five and a-half. I went for my horse in miserable silence. As I rode out the gate he called a telephone number I could use in case I changed my mind and wanted to "do what's right."
I rode home in bitter hopelessness. The ranch world was too western for the likes of me. I could raise the calves and take care of them. What I couldn't do was to sell them.
The good Uncle rescued me, although he was no better a salesman than I, by giving me money and sending me to town to sit on the doorstep of the elusive old T.C., the regional buyer so deservedly cursed for false promises-yet always willing to take a chance and now and then give a leg up to the underdog. He hauled my calves to his big holding pasture-bless his heart!-and later sold them with his, for enough money to give me my original asking price and make a commission himself.
The livestock dealers steeped in sharp business practices who advise one to buy--never sell--at auctions unquestionably know what they talk about. I can't help wondering, however, if they would have been as sanguine in the old days so well described in a letter to the Cattle Growers' Newsletter in which a woman wrote: "Pa argued all day with a buyer to get $7.50 apiece for his four-year-old steers."
It was the war economy that knocked the teeth out of the blood-lusting livestock dealers and traders. I had to sell cows (no rain again) in the year that Hitler marched into Poland. Old T.C. brought out a buyer to see them. When they hemmed and hawed and cried hard times, I essayed the remark that the price of cattle was bound to go up because we were going to war.
They drew back and righteously pulled their robes about them, shrinking from me in horror as if I were a witch conjuring up war, signing the death warrants of good young men that I might make a puny few dollars on my cows. "I don't want no blood money!" declared old T.C. "Hell, I sure don't," cried his associate.
How peaceful, by contrast, to individual negotiations, is the auction sale. You may be disappointed, but no flare-up of temper need hazard a heart attack nor stir up a fist fight.
Prosperous, well-established born-to-the-range cattlemen over the years have made contacts with feeders and commission men that endure from season to season with satisfaction on both sides. The arrangement, often, is much like a partnership. They are the industry's aristocracy. Some longtime operators send their yearlings to well-fixed midwestern grain farmers every year. Some have regular stops, here in southern Arizona and in southern California, for their beef animals; from ranch to feedlot to retailers, such as supermarkets, working on a large scale. The selling and buying are all taken care of when the calves are born, or before. That is big business and it involves other people's money-banks or credit associations.
But for the independent family-size farm or ranch, and for all loners and little operators, the weekly livestock auction holds the solution to all kinds of problems. It is the handiest device that has come along since they started putting pockets in shirts.
Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.