Find me a microphone, a gavel, a cowboy hat and an unwanted emu and I might just become an auctioneer (The emu? Well, a person has to start somewhere.)
This is my plan after recently being exposed to a major learning experience during the annual convention of the Livestock Markets Association of Canada (LMAC). This is an association of the owners and auctioneers, only a truly warped-ear might clearly understand. These are the people who use rapid-fire lingo to sell millions of dollars worth of livestock every year in one of the last bastions of human seller/buyer interaction known as a live auction.
Yes, the virtual, video, electronic, or on-line auctions have a place too, but these guys (and as far as I could tell it was just all guys) firmly believe in the long running tradition of being perched above a sales ring, with livestock circling past, and rattling off a bidding call — known as a personalized chant — that compels serious buyers to keep placing bids before the gavel finally falls and they cry “SOLD.”
For the uninformed, like myself, the word auction comes from a Latin word that means “I increase” or “I augment.” The history of auctions dates back to 500 BC when the Babylonians sold women for marriage. I didn’t see any women sold at this LMAC event in Lethbridge, but who knows what happens when the media goes home. Actually, I think the worst thing that might have happened after the conference awards banquet is that the odd person might have had another beer.
And as further enlightenment, the bidding call or “personalized chant” which I’m guessing no one is every expected to understand, is intended as a rhythmic monotone chant each auctioneer develops as a way to hypnotize buyers, while at the same time creating a sense of urgency — bid or lose out.
As part of the LMAC event they hold the Canadian auctioneer championship — not just for the new and up and coming auctioneers, some of these guys have been chanting for 30 years or more. But veterans and novices alike apply their skills during an actual cattle sale, before a panel of seven peer judges. This year the 30 competitors in the competition all had their shot at selling batches from a total of about 3,500 head of cattle. The cattle sale was hosted at Perlich Bros. Auction Market at Lethbridge, which was celebrating 50 years in business.
The cattle all got sold, but who did the best job? Who had the best chant, who was the most understandable? These were some of the criteria on a long tally sheet used for scoring.
When the figures were tallied, Darren Rebalkin, of Alberta who works for the Meadow Lake, Sask., Livestock Auction, was named the 2017 Canadian champion. He now goes on to compete in the world auctioneering championship. I don’t know if Darren said he had ever sold emus but other contestants who have worked “odd and unusual sales” say an auctioneer has to be prepared for anything.
One of the features of the LMAC program was a tour into feedlot alley. Everyone knows cattle get fed in the Lethbridge area of southern Alberta, some reports peg the capacity at about 500,000 head, and here was a chance for guided tour.
The tour focused on one of the most recent corporate farm structures, as two long-time southern Alberta family farms merged their operations. We visited VRP Farms, which is the 2015 union of Cor Van Raay’s (the VR part) large cattle feeding operation with the Rick Paskel (the P component) feedlot and farm. And it is big, at least by Canadian standards.
The combined farming operation is run by 180 employees. The farm has feeding capacity for 130,000 head of cattle over eight feedlots that range in size from 7,500 head to 30,000 head. They crop about 20,000 irrigated acres, which includes about 9,000 acres of corn and 7,000 acres of soft white wheat, along with winter wheat and other crops that all go into silage.
VRP Farms buys about 40,000 Super B truckloads of grain each year, and feeds about 40,000 tonnes of silage, while cattle produce about 70,000 tonnes of manure.
I was sort of prepared for big cattle numbers and large-scale farming. One thing I didn’t expect was the first stop at the farm’s 25,000 head lamb feedlot.
The lamb feedlot is part of a separate company called Canada Gold Lamb, which in turn supplies lamb to the company-owned processing plant SunGold Specialty Meats Ltd at Innsifail, Alta., near Red Deer.
The lamb lot was built on the site of a former beef cattle feedlot. Each pen has capacity to hold 250 lambs.
The lambs arrive at between 65 to 75 pounds and are fed over about 100 days to a market weight of 120 to 125 pounds. A focal point of the lamb feedlot is a large processing barn that can hold up to 1,000 head. May, June, July are the lower lamb placement months, with the facility filled by August and September. The facility is managed by VPR Farms employee Alfonso Osorinio, with a full time staff of between seven to 12 people depending on time of year.
One other thing I learned, auctioneers enjoy a good meal. The tour stopped for lunch at VRP Farms, hosted by the Paskel and Van Raay families. We got the whole enchilada and more. With several long-time farm employees with Mexican heritage, the meal of traditional Mexican food was a nice change from conventional beef on a bun.
I also learned I can’t hang out with these LMAC folks too much, they could be a bad influence. It was the first bus tour I’ve been on where the refreshment truck that followed the buses was loaded and unloaded with a forklift. I guess it is important everyone keep those chanting vocal chords lubricated. Seriously, they were a very responsible bunch, and very good hosts.
This article originally appeared in the June 6, 2017 issue of Grainews.