Once during both the Spring and Fall, hundreds of people from all ends of the U.S. and abroad drive down Highway 2 in the Sandhills of Nebraska and turn off on South Whitman Road to the humble headquarters of the Connealy Angus bull sale.
Beginning at around 8am, cars park in the meadow in front of my grandmother's house, and cattlemen and cattlewomen come in to the office for a cup of hot coffee and to say hello to my mom and sister-in-law Kara, perpetually friendly faces. They then sign up for a bidder number (stamped with shamrocks, of course) - their ticket to buying a bull - grab their sale catalogs and start walking through the pens of bulls that my dad, brothers, and the rest of the crew sorted by flashlight at 4am that morning.
Bull customers walk through the bulls pre-sale. Most have a good idea of what they are going to bid on, but a final walk through and seeing the animal in person can help to solidify or change a decision.
At around 10 or 11am, seat savers begin to appear in the sale barn, which can only seat about 75% of the people who actually show up. The other 25% watch the sale on TV from a neighboring building.
A hearty lunch of roast beef sandwiches, potato salad, baked beans, and potato chips is served in my grandmother's garage with the help of the nearest caterer and the guys from the local butcher block manning the meat and making sure the bbq sauce isn't abused. The "meat doesn't need it."
Lunch Line - a testament to the roast beef sandwiches.
At about a quarter to noon the buzz in the sale barn is palpable. The bleachers are packed and there are people standing in the entry way trying to get a view of the auction block. All eyes turn to Joe Goggins, our larger-than-life auctioneer who has a laugh more contagious than pink eye, as he does a quick "test, test, 1-2, 1-2."
I take my place on Joe's right side, where I catch an elbow every time he cracks a joke, grinning sideways at me. I'm tasked with changing the number on four screens around the sale ring to correspond to the bull that is currently selling, and to watch a computer screen in front of me to take bids that come in over the internet. Every time this happens, I get to return a hard elbow into Joe's ribs so he knows to up the bid.
Jerry Connealy giving a 'speech.'
At high noon Joe welcomes everyone to the ranch, and introduces my dad, Jerry Connealy, to say a few words. Dad's 'speeches' are notoriously short and to the point: the bulls are 100% guaranteed, "if you're not happy we're not happy," thanks his family and recognizes his mom, and invites everyone in for prime rib and beer at the Whitman Community Club after the sale.
Sale Barn & Auction Ring
Pleasantries out of the way, Joe calls the first bull into the ring. The door on my right slides open, and in walks a beauty of a black animal, a two year old bull that Dad has given the honor of leading off the sale. Joe starts the bidding, and immediately the ring men - guys planted back to back around the ring scouting for hands in the air - start hooting and hollering, and Joe increases the bid by $2,500 for every "Yip!" he hears.
Ring men scouting bids.
Joe will blaze through the 50 or so two-year-old bulls, and then he will tell everyone to "buckle in - it's time to have a bull sale"; the yearling bulls are the stars of this sale.
People cram in to the sale barn, finding any square of standing room that they can respectfully claim. I watch as the list of people with their hands on the "bid" button online skyrocket, and again, you could grab a handful of the excitement out of thin air.
Dad spends weeks deciding which yearling bull will sell first - whichever one he chooses is, in his opinion, the best bull to go through the sale - a big signal to customers. So, when Mom posts the sale order online two weeks out, everyone is anticipating which yearling bull will be at the top of the list.
And the rodeo begins:
Anyone can bid, and anyone does: on the phone, over the internet, and in person. Most often customers are tried-and-true cattlemen and women who have been in the business for years and know what they want and where to get it. There are also a small handful of what are called 'studs,' or companies that purchase bulls or shares of bulls for the sole purpose of collecting and selling straws of semen to be used for artificial insemination. Depending on the bull, one coffee-straw-sized stick of semen generally ranges from $15-40. If the bull is dead, one straw of their semen can cost thousands.
The price of a live bull at auction also varies as much. This year with a tough cattle market, averages are hovering around $4,000 - $5,000/animal. In an exceptional year, averages can be up over $10,000, with high selling bulls going for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A hilltop view of the Connealy Angus sale site.
The first couple of bulls are a whirlwind of hands going up and ring men yelling and Joe's right leg bouncing up and down like crazy as he commands it all. Dad's top-picks are scattered throughout the sale, and when Joe gets going, he sells one bull every 40 seconds; the folks on the seats have to know which bulls they want and how much they're willing to pay, because Joe won't wait around. He can't, in order to get through 500 bulls before dinner time.
As the sale wraps up around 5:30 or 6pm, the office is buzzing with customers settling up and scheduling delivery of their bulls. Our local bank is keeping track of accounting, Mom, Kara, and their crew keep the 'checkout' line going and give Connealy Angus caps to all those who bought a bull before sending them down the line to the veterinary crew who is taking care of brand inspection papers for out-of-state customers.
When it's all said and done, Auctioneer Joe and his crew from Montana pop their heads into the office, say their goodbyes, and head to the nearest airport where Joe flies his plane back to Montana. The panels around the sale barn are torn down before it gets dark, all of the bulls are sorted into the correct pens and given hay and water, and the whole village it took to make this day happen scurry into their ranch trucks to head into Whitman, an unincorporated metropolis where the only business is a post office, for the after-sale party.
After-Sale party at the Whitman Community Club
Mom, Kara, and the veterinary crew are usually the last to show up in Whitman, where the local bar (which is 30 miles away) is bartending and our old friends Jim and Kathy Finney have been smoking prime rib all day in preparation to feed a couple hundred hungry ranchers. The smell. I don't have words to describe the smell.
The last few stragglers leave Whitman around 9pm, everyone tired and anxious to get back to their own herds. I ride home with my brother Gabriel or Dad, help Mom unload, and we all decompress, mentally preparing to do it all again in 8 months.
All in a day's work.