Satellite Auctions Have Come A Long, Long Way From The Video Tape Days
By: Tim O’Byrne
Some things we kind of take for granted, like antibiotics or cell phones. They are both marvelous additions to our workday lives, and they both have inspiring stories of development behind them. Here’s another story I’ve thought about a few times – the origins of satellite cattle auctions. Back before all this technological nonsense came into our lives, the only outlet for our cattle was the sale barn, the on-site ranch sale, or less frequently, private treaty. The competition of a live sale always seemed to hold a place of esteem in the cattle business. It’s just plain fun to go to one. Urn-made coffee in styrofoam cups, the smell of sawdust, and the hypnotic drone of the auctioneer over a scratchy mike. Look-ee-lous, qualified buyers, anxious and proud sellers, sleepy truckers dozing in the top row, and armchair cattlemen, all under one roof, breaking at noon for steak and biscuits in the cafeteria. Sale day was always a great day.
Then, sometime back when the NFR was still in Oklahoma and there were only 13 channels on TV, we heard a rumor about a sales team that would show up at the ranch with a video camera and film your calves right there in the pen or out in the field. Imagine. What the heck were they going to do with all that film once they got it developed? “Put it on a satellite TV”, somebody answered. Preposterous. Nobody in their right mind would buy a set of calves they couldn’t lay eyes on, would they? Some scoffed while others pondered the notion quietly, and I, as a hotheaded kid… I had a hard time seeing the future of such an incredulous venture.
Let us pause our story to allow the pages to fly off a calendar on the TV screen. 1987 to June, 2014. Superior Livestock Auction is the largest in the country, rolling over 1.3 million head of load-lot cattle across its screens every year. Servicing such a massive logistical undertaking are over 380 representatives out in the field connecting buyers, sellers and cattle. Bi-weekly satellite sales are broadcast on Dish Network’s channel 232, Click to Bid and listed online at the Country Page.
Here’s how they did it.
“It started out as Odle Cumberland Auctioneers,” recalls Jim Odle, an original founder and current General Manager of Superior Livestock Auction, “and we had our first video sale back in 1979”. It all came about through the need to sell cattle from locations and ranches that buyers didn’t really go to.
“Odle Cumberland had been having videos for 9 years before Buddy Jeffers out of Fort Worth, Texas, came to me one day and asked if maybe we could merge our two companies together,” Odle explains. “He’d been having videos for about two years before that.”
Together, they talked about it, and later Odle, accompanied by his older son, Ted, left their home base in Colorado and went down to Fort Worth to meet with Jeffers. “It looked like it was a good fit,” Odle says. “It looked like it was something we should do, and at that time we did do a merger, and we had our first sale at the Denver National Western Stock Show in 1987.” A merger is a delicate, living, complex thing. All the pieces need to fit together, like gears in a transmission, if traction and long-term forward movement is going to occur. “It was a great merger,” Odle continues, “because we had the region areas that we all brought together. In Colorado, everything north and west of I-70 and I-25 was the region we were selling cattle out of.” Buddy Jeffers had earlier merged with the first American video out of Florida, giving him claim to the south and southeast regions. The pieces were beginning to fit nicely, but they needed a southern place to call home. “Back then, Billy Bob here in Fort Worth gave us free rent, and we had a little old room here at the Stockyards, so that gave us two options; one in the south (Fort Worth, Texas) and one in the north (Odle’s operation up in Brush, Colorado). And it was a good deal.”
BIG OL’ CAMERAS
It’s fun to think back about technology’s bulky beginnings. The contraptions were expensive, slow, and cumbersome compared with today’s sleek, hi-speed wireless equipment. “Back then we used great big ol’ cameras that would weigh 30, 40, 50 pounds, with a separate recorder,” Odle recollects. “We used ¾” videotape… we’d bring it back into the offices and edit it. Originally we used to carry one tape for each lot, and then we started alternating with two tapes with the lots on different ones and carry them all to the sale and broadcast them that way.” Reflecting on those old days, Odle remarks of today, “It’s changed a bunch.”
When asked about how the whole concept of video sales were received in the beef production community, Odle’s reply reflected back to some degree on my own youthful, knee-jerk impression. “I think there was some skepticism out there, but we didn’t feel it,” he states. “In the video auction business the old-time ranchers that we went to, they grabbed ahold because they knew they didn’t have buyers come out there several different years.
Some of the younger ranchers gave us a little pushback on it, but the oldtimers come on immediately. Of course their families have been with us ever since. The buyers…I was always concerned about buyers and so we were trying to get as many as we could. And from Day 1, from the first video sale we ever had, we had all kinds of buyers. In fact, when we got to Denver (for that first video sale in ’87) there were so many buyers at the video sale that our big buyers were sitting there back at the regular sale, and most of the cattle were sold over the video to the smaller buyers, the bigger buyers didn’t hardly get any of the cattle.”
As testimony to the confidence level Superior Livestock Auctions has attained during their explosive growth in the past 27 years, their current database of qualified buyers tops a whopping 8,500. “And every one of those buyers in the database is qualified to buy one load or more,” Odle adds. “And that’s a big deal.”
The beef industry has always prided itself on doing millions of dollars a day worth of business on a handshake or verbal agreement. A unique enterprise such as this one… Hey, buy these cattle just by looking at this TV picture, I promise you’ll get exactly what I’m tellin’ you they are… would be doomed to almost immediate failure if the seller misrepresented the offering or the buyer didn’t come through. That hurdle appears to have been vaulted early on.
“Integrity is still what life is all about,” Odle offers, “and Superior has great integrity. Everything we’ve ever done we’ve followed through to the very end.” Odle admits to some hiccups early on with some of the big buyers going bankrupt, which is bound to happen in a fluid and risky marketplace such as live cattle. “As far as Superior’s concerned, we’ve never had a (load) lot that didn’t deliver and didn’t go on like it was supposed to.”
“The big thing was to get it advertised and get out and meet the ranchers and tell them about it.” One more piece of the puzzle fell into their lap. “We had several order buyers back when we first started that had gone through a pretty tough time and didn’t have finances. Some of those good order buyers came on board as representatives for Superior. They brought their customers with them, and of course they had contact with the buyers, too. So that overcame a lot of the problems that we might have had, but the way it worked out, we didn’t have.”
As far as technology is concerned, keeping up with advances is pretty much subliminal for many of us (with the exception of this author). You just adapt without giving it much thought. “You don’t even realize you’re changing as much as you are,” Odle comments about their technological growth. “One of the big things I think changed a lot was Joe Lichtie (Vice President of Superior) got together with the people back east and put together the Click to Bid (www.superiorclicktobid.com) that we use each and every sale. I think that’s been a huge, huge thing.”
Superior’s strategy calls for the company to continue to try to get as many of the good cattle as they can across the United States. They have done a few sales in Canada and Mexico, but their focus remains here in the U.S. Recently, they underwent a structure change that Odle is optimistic about. “National Livestock Credit out of Oklahoma City, along with a group of investors, now owns Superior Livestock Auction and that’s probably as solid a set of hands that any person could want to be in. They’re old time, they started out in 1932. In that length of time they’ve only had five presidents, and that’s quite a thing to say for a lending company. I’m just so proud to have them take over the reins and move ahead with what we’re doing here at Superior Livestock.”
Odle’s vision for the future includes moving steadily forward and keeping up with anything that comes along. “I think Superior’s customers will see quite a few new things over the next 2-3 years, maybe sooner, in the way we put out the catalog, in the way we broadcast our sales, and of course we’re going to be in as many homes as we can.”