Beef focus: How a US mart selling up to 110,000 head annually operates

As part of ONE19: The Alltech Ideas Conference, AgriLand – along with an Irish delegation of farmers and industry representatives – travelled to Texas and New Mexico, in the US. The trip was led by Alltech’s Richard Dudgeon, Niall Brennan, Eimear Murray and Mark Moloney.

After the visit to the Wrangler Feedyard – one of 10 feedlots operated by Cactus Feeders – which was established in 1975 and feeds and slaughters 1.2 million steers and heifers annually, the group stopped off at Tulia Livestock Auction.

The auction or mart is located 50 miles south of Amarillo – in the Panhandle region in Texas – which is one of the key agricultural areas in the state.

Some 86% of the land in Texas is in agricultural production and agriculture employs one in every seven people in the state. To provide a glimpse of the scale, Texas accounts for 13% of the cattle and calves placing it number one in terms of animal numbers in the US.

Tulia Livestock Auction sells approximately 100,000-110,000 cattle annually, making it the largest cattle mart in the state of Texas. The mart is managed by Mark Hargrave – who has been involved in the auction for over 30 years.

Mark Hargrave and Alltech’s Richard Dudgeon

The mart has a capacity of 8,500 head and commences every Thursday – with the exception of holidays – at 9:00am. On the day approximately 1,400 animals went under the hammer. One lot consisted of 382 Charolais steers (pictured above) which were sold in two groups – consisting of 190 head.

The first group of 190 Charolais steers weighed 1,083lb (491kg) on average and these sold for $1.08/lb (approximately €2.13/kg).

Interestingly, for the next 190 head lot, the buyer was offered the same price, once the average weight was within 15lb of the first lot; coincidentally, the entire batch was bought for the Wrangler Feedyard.

However, Mr. Hargrave noted that these steers would not be typical of the bullocks (weight wise) purchased by feedyards.

He explained that most operators buy cattle in the fall – weighing 300-400lb – and they graze them on wheat pasture through the winter before offloading them to larger feedlots at this time of the year.

Also on the day, a lot of 70 heifers (pictured below) went under the hammer for $1.28/lb or €2.53/kg.

Similarly to Ireland, the weather can have a bearing on the numbers entered into the sale.

Heavy rainfall during the previous week had a negative impact on the number presented (1,400 head) on the day of the visit; however, Mr. Hargrave was expecting 3,000-4,000 head for the following week’s sale.

Due to the capacity of the mart, a team of men and women – on horseback – are tasked with: offloading cattle from in-coming trucks and trailers; bringing cattle from waiting pens to the sales ring; and moving cattle from the ring to the buyers’ designated pens.

In some instances, cattle can arrive up to one week prior to the sale; however, sellers normally will bring cattle to the yard within a day or two of the sale; if needs be they are fed a hay-based diet.

Interestingly and different to Ireland, only the seller is charged at this mart and costs stand at approximately $25/head (€22.40/head); this incorporates the feed, insurance and commission.

However, Mr. Hargrave highlighted that a lot of machinery and real estate auctions would charge commission to both the buyer and the seller.

Changes over the years

While there were some similarities between the US-style auction and a typical mart in Ireland, one thing was evident – the lack of people gathered around the ring.

While this can vary from day-to-day or sale-to-sale in Ireland, generally sale rings would have plenty of farmers and buyers – whether they would be monitoring the trade or buying cattle.

However, you could count on both hands – if you skipped the Irish delegation – the number of people present at this sale. And, Mr. Hargrave put this down to one factor – corporate farming.

“I’ve been selling cattle for over 30 years and a lot has changed in that period. We used to have a lot of farmers gathered around the ring, but corporates or big feedyards – that own 10-12 feedlots – have one buyer, so we don’t get the big crowds like we used to.

“We used to have a lot of individuals that bought cattle to feed and now it’s the big outfits that buy them – it’s changed a lot,” he added.

Nowadays, a lot of livestock auctions offer an online service – where anyone can buy cattle over the internet. However, Mr. Hargrave is not a huge fan of the system, stating: “We’re set up for it, but I’m old school.

“When I sell cattle online, I’m trading with some guy in perhaps Nabraska that I don’t know and, if there’s a problem with the cattle, I want to know who I’m dealing with.

“The local guys that are here every week are going to give the market; we don’t need to go the other way,” Mr. Hargrave added.

While the shear scale of the operation was an eye-opening experience, another observation which grabbed the attention of the Irish group was the mode of transport used to bring cattle to and from the mart.

While a number of trailers resembled what you would find here in Ireland, a sample of the different trailers used can be viewed in the gallery below.

Some of these are a little different from the smaller, lighter trailers that would be abandoned every way and anyway outside your local cattle mart!