- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2017

DODGE CITY, Kan. (AP) - Just like church folk, Mike Sherow lumbered up the stairs of Winter Livestock and found his usual seat - smack dab in the center of everything.

Almost every Wednesday since the mid-1970s, the cattle buyer has found his spot at the sale barn - except for the time he had surgery. Even then, he didn’t miss too many sales, driving while sick the two hours from his Reno County hometown of Langdon. For Sherow, after all, there is not a better profession than bidding on cattle that filter through the sale ring.

He’s just one of the characters who come here weekly - where men in cowboy hats and boots are the norm and the smell of hamburgers wafts through the ring.

More than 6,300 head of cattle were sold on this day, and Sherow was hoping to buy a few for a customer. Each time he set his eyes on some calves he liked, he lifted his hand ever so discreetly. Yet it always caught the attention of the ring men, who gave a loud yelp indicating that a bid had been placed - maybe the biggest sale of the year.

This is serious business, after all. A rancher’s paycheck is at stake.

This has been ingrained in Brian Winter since he was a boy shoveling bunks and filling water tanks at the family business. Every Wednesday at 11 a.m., he stands up by the auctioneer and opens the sale, helping to market each group of cattle that comes through the ring. It’s his job to help get ranchers the best price. That has been his family’s motto for more than eight decades: “Take care of the customer and do what is right by them.”

Brian and his brother Mark are the third generation to operate the livestock business, which includes four sale barns in Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming. More than 80 years later, they still operate by the same philosophies and work ethic that their grandfather Karl did when he started Winter Livestock in 1936.

It’s why buyers like Sherow come each week to what is one of the oldest livestock markets in the nation.

“They are a solid business,” Sherow said. “They are a good judge of people. Several families are the third generation bringing cattle here - and they are not just from Ford County; they are coming from as far as New Mexico and Texas.”

The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/2kL8wEI ) reports the Winter family has been involved in the cattle industry in Kansas for 130 years.

Brian’s great-grandfather Henry came to the Finney County area in 1887, settling on land near Kalvesta and constructing a sod home. Karl was born on the ranch in 1889. He attended a one-room school not far from the ghost town of Ravanna, and eventually he took over the ranch and began to expand it.

“He knew cattle his whole life,” Brian said.

In 1936, Karl saw a business opportunity at the Dodge City rail head. Back then, cattle were shipped by rail to terminal markets, including Kansas City. Dodge was one of the older points along the rail as the existing Santa Fe stockyards. Karl purchased the auction market from J.C. Renner and began working to expand it.

“I think they sold 26,000 cattle that first year,” Brian said.

Karl eventually brought in a partner - Ted McKinley - who was influential in helping Karl develop the business, Brian said. Karl’s sons, Ralph, Ross and Ray, also were involved in the business. In 1946, Karl purchased the La Junta, Colorado, auction market, which was also on a railhead. Ray - Brian and Mark’s father - took over that location in the early 1950s.

In 1956, Karl and his son Ross started Winter Feed Yard by Dodge City, a 30,000-capacity facility that is still operated by Ross’s son Ken, said Brian.

In the 1970s, McKinley left the business, but the Winters continued expanding. Over the years, they added sale barns in Riverton, Wyoming, and in 2009 they purchased Pratt Livestock, the state’s largest livestock market.

“We sell 560,000 cattle as a company,” Brian said.

Both Brian and Mark returned to the operation in 1992 - Brian operating out of Dodge City and Mark out of Enid, Oklahoma, where the family used to have a sale barn. Brian also still operates the family ranch at Kalvesta.

“I just always grew up in it,” Brian said of wanting to return.

The brothers’ seven children know the business.

“It has always been a family business,” he said. “All my brothers and sister have worked in and out of it growing up. We are doing things the right way to keep it going for the next generation.”

That includes Brian’s wife Darci, who works in the office. Meanwhile, his cousin Shirley Lewis, whose father Ralph died in the 1940s from an illness, has stayed with the business too. She has worked at Winter for nearly 55 years and still comes on sale days to help with the work.

It’s amazing to see how much the business has grown, Brian said.

“We now have 250 employees,” he said. “My grandfather had 10 employees when he started.”

He once asked his dad what his grandfather would have thought of the changes.

“He said he probably would have been shocked,” Brian said.

Every Wednesday is game day.

They need 45 to 50 people on sale day, the most hectic day of the entire week. A crew is out feeding and watering cattle by 3 a.m. By 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m., people begin trickling into the door. The auctioneer begins selling small bunches about 8:30 a.m., but the main commodities - calves and feeder cattle - begin about 11 a.m.

Then, for every group of cattle that comes through the ring, Brian works to get the seller the most profit before the auctioneer begins calling.

“We are … giving background and history of each seller’s consignment as the cattle come in,” he said.

“It all happens in 35 seconds and then the next group is coming in,” Brian said. “That is why you need great employees to make it work.”

That includes making sure sellers get their check within five minutes of selling their livestock.

“I think our biggest focus is to take care of the customer,” he said. “That is what Karl built his business on.”

It’s one reason Randy Kraft comes to Winter.

“The people here are good, honest people and the market is steady,” said Kraft, a third-generation Kearny County rancher who also has an operation in Arkansas. “Some of the other sale barns - the prices are up and down on the same cattle.”

On this Wednesday, Kraft had some 500-weight steers he wanted to sell. He usually markets his cattle by private treaty, but prices have fallen after hitting record highs and not as many producers are turning out the smaller cattle this year.

A year ago he was selling 500-weight calves for $2.80 a pound.

“I don’t think in my lifetime we will ever see cattle prices like that,” Kraft said. “Now the price is about half of that, but it is still profitable.”

Another factor that doesn’t change too often is the people in the stands.

Eddie Bergkamp, 77, has been a mainstay at Winter for 60 years, buying cattle for area producers.

And there is Sherow, who says he has never considered another way of life.

By age 12 or 14 he was trading baby calves, including at the old market at Kingman. He wasn’t supposed to drive, so his Aunt Ethel would pick him up.

His freshman year in high school, the principal pulled him aside.

“This is all you are going to do, so you can get out at noon and go to the sale on Fridays,” he told Sherow.

Even if he had said no, it wouldn’t have mattered. Sherow said he had been skipping school to go to sales since the eighth grade.

“I guess it is kind of like gambling,” he said. “You try to out-buy the other person. You try to get the better buy. There is just something about it.”

Brian said one of the reasons he loves the business is the customers.

“You see guys and they have their kids with them or you know their dad or his granddad was selling here,” he said.

But it’s also the excitement of the auction house each week that he loves.

“It’s like game day every week.”


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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