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The College Kid Runs the Auction, Part 2

Last week I recounted how, with  a mere half dozen years of sheep farming experience, I undertook the job of managing the weekly sheep sale at the Ukiah Livestock Auction.

The time of year I began the job was an accident of good fortune for someone who had a lot to learn about how to do the job.  Together with Sammy Prather I had been a regular attendant, buyer and seller, over there for a number of years, so I had a pretty good overview of how the day’s agenda worked and the layout of the stock pens for housing the sheep sale lots behind the auction arena.  My good luck was to start the job in early spring, near the end of the rainy season when the sheep stock arrived pretty dry and in fairly small lots, maybe thirty or forty head per seller, altogether maybe five or seven hundred head we had to break down into saleable units.  For me this small headcount in early April was like the first days of baseball spring training, where I could pace myself carefully  to learn all the navigation tricks for moving sale lots from the outdoor arrival pens, through the maze of dirt corridors, about six feet wide, that served the half acre of sale lot pens.

And it also turned out that those three or four farm teenagers I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to manage weren’t as hostile to my College Kid manner of directing operations as I had expected.  In fact, like many fifteen year old farm kids who had grown up around livestock at home or in 4H, they had management capabilities that required very little close direction about the details of the work day.  Some of them had in fact been employed at The Auction for as long as two and three years before I became their boss.  So I found myself in the position of being nominally in charge of their activities while I learned the layout of the place.  So I used my active participation  in stock sorting mostly to support their tasks when they had a particularly large unit of sheep or lambs to drive a long ways through the corridors maze and into pens.  All that meant was opening and closing the corridor gates hung at each intersection to create clear paths to a particular pen, moving ahead to open the gate to the pen or pens they  were driving the band to, and posting the sign that identified the seller and the number of head in his sale lot.

Furthermore, I was very gratified by the amount of supportive advice I got from various other participants in the sale transaction.  Most of the time Sammy was back there with me, and all the kids knew him as the leading pure-bred Columbia Ram breeder in the County, which gave me some status with them I wouldn’t have projected by myself.  He would post himself  in the large sheep stock arrival area south of the sale arenas and help us start dividing up the lot into its saleable units, old ewes, young ewes, yearling bucks and ewes, fat (ready for slaughter), feeder and thrifty (maybe not ever gaining enough weight to become feeders), and old sheep for the pet food slaughter house.

Then later on in the spring after shearing time, when the sale lots got larger each week for over a month, the old Covelo cowman bachelor, Andy Scheubeck, who ran the cattle sale on the other side of the building, would come over to the sheep side and assist us all with our organizing agenda.  Andy was a treasure to have known, was about seventy years old, middle sized and lean, always wearing his leather chaps over his jeans, leather gloves and a medium-sized sweaty cowboy hat.   He was a descendant of  Round Valley first settlers, had lived by himself on a huge cattle ranch north of Covelo, and drove down to Ukiah every Saturday to do his management job for the cattle business which in 1980 was not large and diminishing in scale yearly.

Andy was so soft-spoken with his advice delivered in the dust and clamor of our work, I had to stand right at his elbow and listen carefully to what he said.  But he knew stock cold and its appraisal as to weight, and never mind his age, was just as nimble as the rest of us moving sheep through the corridors between pens and auction room.  Years later I found Andy’s published personal diary recording over fifty years of his life on the family ranch up in the mountains north and east of Covelo.  It’s one of the most informative and beautifully written personal recollections of wagon road farm life I have ever read, and I owe it to you readers wanting to know more about the “pioneer days” in Mendocino County to do a book review on Andy’s diary when the time is right.

The other Auction participant even more helpful to me organizing the sheep into sale lots was also their principle buyer’s purchasing representative.  Warren Dutton was the descendant of an original settler Santa Rosa family who had over generations become wealthy large landholders and farmers.  Dutton Lane in today’s suburban west side of town is a major thoroughfare running from the Sebastopol Road to the Guerneville Road north of town that was once, today still is, part of the family’s livestock, orchard and vineyard farming enterprises.  One of Warren’s several occupations was to attend the Ukiah Sale every week during the heavy spring selling season as the Armour Meat Company’s buyer for its feedlot and slaughterhouse in Dixon near Sacramento.

Warren was an angular but well-fed Scottish-looking gentleman who even in the heat of Ukiah summer showed up at The Sale Saturdays mid-morning driving the 18 wheel Armour livestock truck, dressed from head to toe in woolen tweeds, slacks, jacket and sometimes even a vest, all topped off by a small felt fedora.  Under his neatly creased pants cuffs there peeked old worn cowboy boots.  He also walked the pens with a short oak shepherds’ crook on his arm, just in case he could help out too.  His border collie Bob was always in the cab of the stock truck alert and ready for duty.

Where Warren was most valuable was showing me the most effective way to organize efficiently breaking up into saleable lots the large bands of sheep that arrived at The Sale in high spring.  This period ran from early May to mid-June, according to the climate the bands were coming from.  In hot Round Valley sheep were sheared and lambs and other stock brought to sale in early May, on the very cool Coast sometimes as late as late June.  During those weeks the number of sheep flowing through The Sale could be three, four or even five thousand head.  One had to move fast to divide this population into saleable lots, and Warren would accompany me right at my elbow and show me how to appraise a seller’s band in the arrival area, maybe 150 head, and advise me how  most quickly to break them up into saleable units. 

The patterns usually was to get the whole sale lot into a big pen, then break out the bucks and old ewes and drive them into their respective smaller pens, finally going back to the lambs and divide them into “fats,” “feeders” and “thrifty” lots.  Warren was my mentor in grading the lambs by running my right hand from their shoulders down their spines to feel the density of the fat tissue there and guessing their average weight.  For “fats” you shouldn’t be able to feel any of the spine through the wool and flesh and each lamb in the lot should weigh at least ninety pounds/head.  “Feeders” you could feel their vertebrae knuckles and guessed their weight as at least 65 pounds.  “Thrifties” just looked, skinny, hungry and demoralized, their noses in the dust.

After The Sale was over, say around 4 PM, Warren would maneuver the stock truck around to the  spacious load-out area stock chute, beckon his dog from the cab, then help me load the animals he had purchased at the afternoon’s sale.  My part of the task was pretty easy.  All the other small purchasers had loaded out their stock earlier; so any sheep left were Armour’s.  All I and my crew had to do was to create a major avenue from the pens area to the loading chute out back.  The stock truck could carry up to 1,800 head of sheep on five tiers of slatted steel flooring.  The  large loading chute could be raised and lowered to accommodate each tier and we would load from top to bottom.

My job was to bring a couple of hundred sheep up to the base of the stock chute, at which point Warren and Bob would take over.  Warren stood at the rear of the band and began poking the trailing head in the butt with his crook, Bob would snap at their heels so their panic would put pressure on the pack’s lead sheep to go up the chute to the trailer entrance.  Sheep are no good at entering a dark place, fear of predators, so the lead lambs would stall at the top of the ramp just outside the loading door in the side of the trailer just behind the truck cab.  Bob’s job was to run up the backs of the tightly packed band til he was near the top of the chute and start nipping vigorously at its leaders’ ears.  About a dozen nips would encourage one of them to jump into the dark trailer interior and the weight of the band pushing them from behind would force the whole lot into the tier until it was full.  About a ten minute transaction from start to finish.

Meanwhile I and  my crew would be back in the pen area getting the lot for the next tier ready for loading.  After an hour of eating dust in the paddocks as the sun settled over the hills west of Ukiah, the last sheep, the older slaughter stock, were loaded, Warren, Bob and I would meet at the base of the loading chute to dust ourselves off.  Warren would knock his hat on a post and readjust it on his head, Bob might take a bath in the dirt, I would blow my nose clear of dusty snot, and we would gossip for a few minutes about the highlights of the sale day.  Then Warren would sedately mount the cab, start the engine and slowly drive toward the stock yard exit, then north to the Highway 101 entrance and the four hour trip back to Dixon.  A long day for an “older” guy; an educative one for the College Kid.  And I could already taste that first beer on the drive home with Sam Prather.

(Next Week:  A Day in the Life at The Auction.)

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