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Bull season an anticipated social event for ranchers

By John O’Connell

Intermountain Farm and Ranch

In the span of less than three hours, Salmon rancher Steve Herbst and his family will generate most of the revenue resulting from a year's worth of hard work. 

So they make sure to cut no corners in preparing a memorable feast for friends and customers who attend their crucial bull sale at Nelson Angus Ranch, hosted annually on the third Saturday of March.

Ranches throughout Idaho will host such bull sales throughout March, prior to the breeding season, providing people in the cattle industry a chance to visit with friends, eat well and upgrade the genetics of their herds. 

Herbst said his bull sale is in its 69th year. His family will sell 150 top bulls and will feed home-cooked dinners to about 700 guests. Prior to the big sale, his wife, mother-in-law and even some neighbors work tirelessly in the kitchen, preparing homemade desserts, salads and side dishes. 

Of course, they also serve generous portions of certified Angus beef.

"The ranching community still likes a social circle where they can gather among their peers and talk and visit and get updates," Herbst said. "It happens to occur at a time when ... the industry has undergone an intense season of calving. Your nose has been to the grindstone a lot, so it's a great time to get away and socialize with fellow livestock producers and have someone else cook lunch for you."

Modern technology is becoming increasingly important in the industry. Roughly 10 percent of purchases during the sale will be made by online bidders, including many from other states.

And nowadays, Herbst said, pure-breed ranchers must essentially be genetic scientists "assembling genetics to provide improvement opportunities for the commercial beef sector."

He uses both embryo transplants and artificial insemination as breeding tools, though he's been doing fewer embryo transplants lately because his cow herd has become more consistent.

A top-end bull still fills a critical role in "cleanup," he explained. Herbst said 60 to 70 percent of heifers may become impregnated through artificial insemination and bringing in a good bull makes sure the remainder also go on to produce a calf. 

All of his bulls have been DNA tested and genetically mapped for desirable traits, such as marbling, udder quality, back fat and yearling weight. 

There's an unwritten rule among bull breeders against scheduling a sale that overlaps with a neighbor's sale. 

"We always have the third Saturday and our neighbor has the third Friday and our other neighbor has the third Wednesday," Herbst said. "A lot of times we go help our neighbors before and after. We're competition but we're also friends in the business, and they come and help us, too."

Rockland Valley rancher James Udy said his family has been ranching in southeast Idaho since 1919, and they'll be hosting their 41st bull sale on March 11. 

Prior to organizing their own registered bull sale, they sold bulls in in small groups on consignment. They'll sell about 130 bulls and 60 yearling heifers at their upcoming sale. 

They artificially inseminate about 400 cows per year and rely on cleanup bulls to follow up with the roughly 40 percent that don't become pregnant initially. 

Of course, they'll "roll out the red carpet" and serve beef to their guests. His mother, aunt and sisters prepare roast beef sandwiches and baked potatoes for the occasion. 

"Everybody is busy calving this time of year and it's kind of a four- to five-hour break to get away from home and see your neighbors and visit with them," Udy said. "We work seven days a week, and you don't really have a whole lot of time to spend talking to your neighbors and your friends."

Neal Ward, of Wooden Shoe Farms in Blackfoot, said his grandfather started the family in the Hereford cattle business back in 1945. His family will be hosting just its second bull sale this year, though they've hosted an annual cow sale for about 20 years. Prior to last year, when their bull numbers grew large enough to justify a sale, they sold their bulls through consignment or private treaty. 

"It allows us to sell a volume of cattle at one time and at one place," Ward said. 

They'll be selling about 80 lots, including a few cows. Guests at their sale will be treated to a catered lunch, featuring the Wards' beef.

About half of the animals they sell are bred using embryo transplants, and about 75 percent were artificially inseminated. They participate in fairs throughout the West to raise awareness about their genetics and build interest in their sale. 

"For us, it's constant research. You're looking every day for more performance or current pedigrees or intriguing things that excite you," Ward said. "We find that we want everything maternal. For us, if (animals) don't have enough udder and teat structure and maternal values, we're not interested."

Stacy and Art Butler, with Spring Cove Ranch in Bliss, will be selling 156 bulls and several yearling heifers during a March 9 sale. 

Art's grandfather sold the family's first registered Angus bull for $50 in 1920 to a man he picked up in a horse and buggy. The buyer secured the bull in a crate and transported him home on a train. 

"The same herd of cows has been calved by the same Butler family for 101 years," Stacy said.

The family started hosting a bull sale in 1992, collaborating with some other breeders until 1998, when they built their own sale barn. 

Selling the bulls from home eliminates the risk of the animals being exposed to illnesses upon being moved. It also gives them the opportunity to show off their ranch to potential buyers.

Stacy said preparing for the sale is "like cleaning your house for company, except you're cleaning your ranch."

They've been using artificial insemination since the 1960s and started doing embryo transfers in the late 1980s. Every calf born on their ranch undergoes genomic testing. They're known for their elite genetics, as artificial insemination companies sometimes purchase their bulls for studs. 

They'll video their bulls and open the bidding to online participants, as well. A couple of years ago, a buyer from Nebraska paid $44,000 for one of their top bulls. Last year, they sold a heifer to a buyer in Iowa for $21,000. 

The cinnamon rolls served at the Spring Cove Ranch sale have become well known within Idaho's cattle industry.  In the early years of the sale, Stacy, along with her mom and aunt, prepared a big meal featuring the family's famous cinnamon rolls for their guests. 

Nowadays, the flank steak meals are catered by another ranching family, but Stacy's aunt still makes the cinnamon rolls for sale day.

The family makes sure to invite the general public to experience the sale — and the meal. 

"We invite locals, even if they don't need a bull," Stacy said. "It's a sense of community, and it's an opportunity for neighbors to come and see what we're doing and what the program is all about."