It takes a pro to move 60,000 cattle across the auction block in less than 14 hours. It’s a black blur of brands and fur that leaves even good hands breathless.
But there are good hands and then there are best hands. At the two-day Billings Livestock Commission sale, which ended Tuesday, there were two world champion auctioneers, reigning world champion Blaine Lotz, of Edna, Kan., and 2009 world champ Ty Thompson, of Billings.
Brooks don’t babble as smoothly as Lotz auctioneers. You can listen closely to the 21-year-old phenom’s baritone cadence and never discover the point at which he pauses to catch his breath. He drew comparisons Tuesday, not to other auctioneers but to country music stars.
“He sounds like Randy Travis,” Ty Thompson said, grinning. “I told the audience Blaine and I are a lot alike. Both of us are slim. Both of us are good-looking.” The comparison drew some laughs. Thompson has 20 years on Lotz and not as many spare holes in his belt.
There are similarities. Thompson teaches at the Western College of Auctioneering, a small school located inside the Best Western ClockTower Inn that has turned out more than a few world champion livestock auctioneers.
Lotz enrolled in the college at age 15 and got a full-time auctioneering job at 17. He was a natural, the son of retired auctioneer Carla Lotz, who the day Blaine was born worked the sales barn right up until an hour before her water broke. Other kids had baby lullabies; Blaine Lotz had the stock-ticker cadence of the cattle sale.
Growing up, when Blaine Lotz wasn’t with his mother and auctioneering grandfather, Charlie Ross, he was with his father, Mike Lotz, an order buyer.
Order buyers travel an auction circuit placing bids for customers who may be several states away. They are the hired guns of the auction business.
What Lotz learned from those childhood days spent in sales barns from Arkansas to Oklahoma, was that an auctioneer’s performance could make or break a rancher financially. It was up to the auctioneer to make sure a consigner got what his cattle were worth in the brief flurry of bidding that can wrap a five or six-figure sale in a matter of minutes.
“Your responsibility is huge,” Lotz said. “You’re handling a consigner’s livelihood. Nowadays it’s worth so much money you got to realize this could be that consigner’s one and only paycheck of the year. It’s all in your hands.”
There were a lot of fortunes made at the Northern Livestock Video Auction 2014 Summertime Classic, which wrapped up Tuesday. Thompson said the auction sold 66,000 cattle, most of which will be delivered in late fall or early December. Ranchers are locking in prices now that are $500 to $600 a head better than they were a year ago.
The nation’s cattle population is as low as it’s been in 60 years, foreign demand for U.S. beef is up and Americans are putting beef in their shopping carts again after a few years of sluggish sales during the recession.
Auction sales give sellers a way to discover market price without playing the commodities market, which appeals to ranchers, Thompson said.
For buyers, the auction sale is a way to lock in a cattle supply directly from the ranch. Prices are at historic highs and more than double what they were just five years ago.