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Bullish on beef

Mon., Feb. 27, 2006

Meet Prescott.

He is a 1,400 pound, neatly trimmed, hand-washed, blow-dried, primped, show-ready stud waiting his turn for this week’s Cowman’s Classic All Breed Bull Sale.

His keeper, Walla Walla High School teacher Arch McHie, spent Sunday afternoon with other cattlemen from around the Pacific Northwest getting their big boys ready. The sale is their promotion and marketing opportunity to show serious bull buyers what they have to offer.

These are good times for cattlemen. During the past three years, beef prices have been setting record highs even as meaty diets fade.

“We expect to have another outstanding sale,” said Gary Kendall, the Potlatch, Idaho, cattleman running the 22nd-annual show today at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, which will be followed by Tuesday’s sale.

The all-breed bull sale, among the last in the region, still commands respect from buyers who appreciate the rigorous requirements the bulls must meet to qualify for the auction.

Two years ago, a Black Angus bull sold for $20,000. This year, Kendall expects at least one to fetch more than $7,500.

All bull calves, usually younger than 2 years, are fertility-tested, weighed and have had scrotum measurements taken.

McHie said good bulls “are all about butts, guts and nuts.” By that measure, Prescott is amply blessed.

In the cattle program bio, Prescott is described as a “super thick, meat-producing machine.”

He has a big firm rear and thick musculature. His scrotal circumference is greater than a ripe ruby red grapefruit, beating the 32 millimeters required for auction.

The larger the testicles and scrotum, as McHie tells it, the better chance a bull can service more cows and pass along desirable genes. He expects Prescott, born 17 months ago, to be loosed in a cow pasture in a couple months to sire dozens of next year’s calves.

Across the large barn where more than 100 bulls slept Sunday night, polled Hereford owner Roger Linton ran a pair of hair clippers up and down the legs of a bull he hoped would fetch about $3,500.

Getting the Herefords all prettied up for the show admittedly isn’t his favorite part of raising the hornless red bulls with distinctive white faces.

“It’s kind of like getting ready for the prom,” he joked, pulling tufts of auburn hair from a set of clippers that would make a Marine sweat. “I’m more of a records man. This other stuff I do because everyone else does it.”

But prepping the bulls is important work.

Each bull will be shown today and careful grooming can bring out the best qualities or mask weaknesses.

The bulls are then auctioned Tuesday in order of how they placed in the show, beginning with the best. Some of these best bulls will donate semen that is saved and sold for top dollar to artificially inseminate cows.

With more than 40 years in the business, Linton said, these are some of the best in memory.

“The prices are great,” he said, “It’s a heck of a lot of work, but there should be a lot of smiles around here Tuesday.”

Indeed, Kendall hopes the average bull sells for about $3,000.

If prices sag, he’ll be disappointed.

Kendall’s sale has dropped from past years. He recalls fondly when the auction featured more than 300 bulls rather the 99 slated for sale on Tuesday.

One recent year just 80 bulls were sold.

The reasons are numerous. Mostly, it’s competition from production sales, usually featuring one breed from one owner.

Agriculture newspapers run advertisements for such sales weekly. These sorts of sales normally don’t wean the weaker bulls from the sale and the risk of buying a dud is greater, McHie said.

“Having Gary keep this auction going is important to the little operations,” he said. “It ensures quality continues.”

McHie doesn’t have the money or the time to do much more than run a small operation.

He’s busy – teacher, softball coach, two kids, 30 cow-calf pairs – but wouldn’t have it any other way.

“For guys like me who raise a few bulls each year, this auction is a big deal,” he said. “It is for the big guys, too.

“It’s a chance to show off what you have.”


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