Going to the local weekly livestock sale barn is a bit like going to church.
The farm folks and buyers sit in the same spot week after week, year after year. Every few months, for at least 55 years, I have taken in the Tuesday afternoon livestock sale barn in Cobden. It’s officially Renfrew Pontiac Livestock but it’s known far and wide as the Cobden sale barn. I started going there occasionally with my father back in the early 1960s. The barns have been expanded over the years but the cafeteria still serves coffee and hot meals. The sale starts at 1 p.m. sharp. It’s a great place to meet and to socialize with fellow farmers. No one dresses up. Unlike church, there are no suits or ties.
Harry and Lois Dick, of Douglas, and their sons have run the sale barn for the past 22 years. Harry is like a fixture sitting at ringside every week, watching as each animal comes into the ring. He’s now 78 but he was also a regular as a kid, visiting the sale barn from the age of 15, when it first opened in 1952. Harry knows cattle, having been in the cattle business all his life, and doesn’t miss a thing. Occasionally he’ll shout an order to his son, the ringman, punctuating it with a wave of his hand.
One afternoon, a 2,800 lb. bull, the size of a moose, came bouncing in. It was a scary sight and Harry yelled, “weigh him and get it out.”
The main buyers sit on cushioned seats at ringside. Others prefer to sit up higher, like the two Muslim buyers, who have come in recent years to buy cattle (fat heifers, fattened steers and young bulls) for their slaughterhouse in the area. There are perhaps a dozen farmers and retired farmers who are the “regulars,” seldom missing a sale. They sit on benches scattered throughout the arena where they can look down at the ring and see the cattle weight flashed on the wall. Two elderly men have come weekly since the sale barn opened.
I like to sit two seats from ringside, across from where the main buyers are, observing them and the animals in the ring. The buyers look relaxed, making purchases with a flip of their thumb, a nod or a wink. They will bid up to a certain price per pound and then stop with a quick, small shake of their heads. They’ll buy up to $200,000 in cattle in one afternoon.
Preston Cull, the sale barn’s auctioneer, is a local dairy farmer who also has an auctioneering business. He knows everyone by name and there’s always some light-hearted bantering going on if there’s a little delay in getting animals in or out of the ring. One guy kids that if it wasn’t for the spectators filling the arena to capacity every week, Cull wouldn’t have an audience for his weekly show. Cull laughs and retorts that he should be selling admission tickets.
Cull says you have to be an entertainer in this business. He has a rare double gift of being quick on his feet and shutting people up while making them smile. How many people can say that they can bark at a customer, “Go to hell,” or “I’m talking here” and even though the hall fills with laughter, the customer returns the next week.
Each week livestock, sheep, some hogs, and occasionally horses come from a wide area, including the Pontiac area of Quebec along the Ottawa River. The sale the week before Christmas started off by selling a few billy goats that had everyone chuckling as they darted about the ring, not wanting to go through the exit door. Later, a quiet haltered donkey was led around the ring numerous times and that brought some good-natured calls to the ringman: “Don’t get too chummy with him.” The animal only brought $150.
During the fall months, stockers (spring calves) ready to be fattened up for the feedlots are sold in groups of identical colour and weight. At the pre-Christmas sale there were 250 to be sold. These animals can be very unpredictable as they have just come off grass and haven’t been handled much. The ringman’s job is to turn animals around so buyers can see them from all sides. The ringman can step behind a gate if he senses an animal will attack. He never walks directly behind an animal, except when selling docile dairy cows. That day, there were two stockers in the ring, not wild or jittery at all. But as the pair was going out the exit door, one of the animals suddenly leaped backwards and lashed out a leg towards the ringman. It was close but luckily he didn’t get nailed in the groin.
As the pre-Christmas sale was winding down late in the afternoon, the cafeteria staff put out plates of sandwiches, cheese, pickles, pickled eggs and large layered cakes for the many patrons. The goodies were compliments of the Dick family. There was just the one week that the sale barn was closed for Christmas but it was business again as usual on Dec. 29.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and an agriculture columnist