Cowboy Down

AuctionDyp2_1by Eric Nishimoto

I hate cattle auctions.

The last time I attended one was when I had to liquidate our thoroughbred longhorns. They were just several head, not enough to call a herd. I call them “a handful” because they were.  We bought them in 2005, right before we moved to Texas from California.

Some wealthy ranchers persuaded me that longhorns were a fabulous investment. But I really didn’t need much persuading. I was already captivated by the mystique and lore surrounding these giant horned beasts that were tough enough to once roam wild and thrive across the vast Texas plains.

Owning a handful of Texas Longhorns fulfilled the childhood dream of a four-year-old Hawaiian boy (me) clunking around the house in my cowboy boots, hat, vest and hibiscus print shorts slinging my Mattel Shootin’ Shell .45 Fanner. In my mind, I looked every bit like Roy and the Duke, at least from the grainy black and white images inside our RCA that our rabbit ears strained to pull from the other side of the island. After moving to Texas, though, I knew I didn’t look the part, but dang it, I still felt it. I could finally call myself a “cattleman.”

I just wasn’t a very good one. Turns out I came into the market during what may have been the worst drought in the history of the state.Auction Ring_resd

A wise rancher told me that what makes a cattleman is his grass, not his beef. A cattleman who wants to stay in business nurtures his grass so he can support his herd. I got that. I just didn’t get how bad the drought would be even on my resilient longhorns.  In 2005, the year I bought my cattle, my grass quickly disappeared into dust. A bale of hay that at first cost me about $15 soared to $150, if I could even find some. I had to hire a water truck to regularly fill my stock tanks. Every rancher I talked to was getting desperate, looking for any way to feed and water their cattle. The high hopes and excitement born out of the cattle auctions buying the longhorns evaporated faster than our stock tanks. So I headed to one last auction, to try and get a small fraction of my money back.

It felt more like a funeral dirge than a cattle auction. The place was packed with lifelong cattlemen needing to liquidate hundreds of head for almost nothing. The pens stayed full as cattle were quickly pushed through, making space for more cattle sitting in trailers waiting to be sold and sent off mostly out of state where there wasn’t a drought. Instead of the spirited bidding I had experienced in previous auctions, there was hardly a word or gesture as cattle flowed in and past buyers and sellers with barely a pause. Bang! Bang! Bang! The auctioneer’s hammer fell quickly and repeatedly, sounding more like it was pushing nails than sealing sales.

AuctionDyp5_2Nearly all the cattle that had been running through the arena during that last half hour belonged to one rancher. I saw him sitting not too far from me. I found out later the rancher was in his late eighties and a cattleman like his father and grandfather before him. Now, forced to let go of his family’s herd, he looked defeated. The only time movement he made was to bring his handkerchief up to his face to swipe his nose. He looked too much like I remember my grandmother looking when she was close to dying — expressionless, empty. I watched as his cattle were snapped up for almost nothing, over and over again, until finally, thank God, his herd was gone. As the auction dispensed with another rancher’s holdings, the old cowboy, looking crumpled and forlorn, slowly got up, turned away and walked out. His friends and family followed him out of the cattle barn silently and respectfully, like they were following a hearse leaving a burial service.

My handful of longhorns fared better. But the proceeds from the sale of my cattle didn’t begin to cover my costs. So I got up and walked out too, turning my back on the cattle flowing through the arena and fetching next to nothing.

This is why I hate cattle auctions.  For me, any cattle auction would only bring back terrible memories of that old rancher’s eyes and how much he probably wanted to cry but couldn’t, because the drought not only took away his herd, but also his tears.

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Eric NishimotoEric Nishimoto (AC ‘11) is an award-winning media relations and strategic communications professional in both the public and private sectors, Eric came to the Mayborn to learn to write. He’ll get his Master’s this December, and has won an SPJ Mark of Excellence award, Texas Intercollegiate Press awards for feature writing and illustration, and a Texas Associated Press Managing Editors community service award as part of an in-depth reporting team from the Mayborn. He’s been a finalist in the Arthur W. Page Society national PR competition and presented academic papers at the AEJMC mid-winter conference. All this thanks to Dr. Busby, Cathy Booth Thomas, Suzanne Frank, some of the nation’s best student journalists, and especially George Getschow.

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