By: Chris Haxel, The Manhattan Mercury
It's the night before an auction, and cattle are beginning to arrive. Manhattan Commission Company in Manhattan, Kan., already smells like livestock - it always does - but the back lot is also about to get loud.
The animals disembark trailers in groups of two or three, or a dozen, or more. They're guided, or chased, directly into the vast maze of metal gates and stalls that stretches nearly 600 feet behind the auction house.
Because they are cattle, they moo. And loudly.
Through it all, co-owner John Cline is on the phone, struggling to overcome the din as he takes calls from buyers and sellers finalizing plans for the next day's auction.
Rural life has a reputation for being unhurried, but there is no such nonchalance in Cline's step. Adorned in the cattleman's uniform of blue jeans, a collared shirt and cowboy hat, his speech and movements mirror the swift staccato song of an auctioneer - in part because that's one of his roles during the weekly Friday auction.
Ask Cline "How many classes of cattle do you sell?" - and settle in for a long answer.
"Well we sell a lot of different classes," he said. "We'll sell probably seven or eight classes. We have cull cows, for example, and then you'll sell hefeirettes, which is them young heifers that didn't breed so you can call them a class of cattle. Of course you sell baby calves and then you have steer calves and then stocker feeder which are smaller - steers are all steers - but you have lighter ones and you'll have heavy ones so we usually break them up into two classes, like steer calves and then stocker feeder steers. And then you do the same on heifers, so that's four classes with the steers and heifers, two of each. And then you'll have the bred cows and then cow-calf pairs. And then sometimes we'll even sell breeding bulls, too. So, you just try to do anything to get along."
It's a routine Cline has perfected over the past 35 years, since he joined the Manhattan Commission Company in 1980. And, although the fundamental process of buying and selling cattle is the same, much has changed in Cline's time.
"Urban growth is eating a lot of our cattle business," Cline said. "You know, houses encroach a little further north, a little further east. Not only in Manhattan, it's all towns."
The auction house, which sits along Highway 24 about a mile east of Manhattan, has been open since 1954. As the city has grown, so too has the traffic. "From 4:40 to about 6 o'clock or so it's pretty thick," he said. For people pulling livestock trailers full of cattle, navigating the cars and trucks zipping along the highway's four lanes can be treacherous.
Another problem with growth is that it pushes farms further away from the city. With other auction houses in Junction City, Clay Center, Salina and Emporia, distance becomes a factor, especially when gas prices are high, The Manhattan Mercury reports.
"We truthfully did lose customers when gas got to be $4 a gallon," Cline said. "Because, you know, it's hard to compete with close... so that hurts you, and I don't know what to do about that except complain.
"But you just have to go visit with (farmers) and, really...you have to solicit business," Cline said. "If you just sit there and hope they drive in the door, you're gonna lose them. You have to go see 'em and that's why my pickup's got 50,000 miles - it's only about 15 months old. And I should have twice that many miles. Because you just gotta go go go, run run run."
During the auction on Friday, it's the cattle that are doing most of the running.
As the sale approaches, workers drive animals through the network of pens to a holding area behind the auction house. Inside, a handful of buyers laze in the stadium-style seating, their boots resting on the chairs in front of them as they await the auction's 10 a.m. start.
The crowd is thin for the first several cull cows, animals that are no longer profitable and thus undesirable - a fact confirmed by their low sale prices of about $100.
The auction begins with a clang, as a metal gate slides upward, connecting an outside pen with the inside pit. In rushes an old cow, bewildered as it quickly explores the metal enclosure. Two men with poles poke and prod the animal, encouraging it to turn in circles so buyers can see its whole body. After about 30 frantic seconds, another metal gate slides upward. The animal - detecting an escape route - runs through the newly-opened tunnel and back outside.
Almost simultaneously, another cow rushes in from the first gate.
Over the next several hours, the process is repeated hundreds of times.
Some cattle are frantic, others almost pensive - glancing upward through the pen toward the men who will determine their fate.
By the end of the day, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cattle have been bought or sold. Cline expected about $2 million to change hands on a recent Friday. The auction company receives a commission on most of the sales.
Once the auction ends, buyers load their trailers with newly-purchased cattle and drive home to places as close as Wamego, and as far as Oklahoma or Nebraska. The process can last long into the night, and cleanup begins almost immediately - mud and manure is shoveled away, replaced with fresh sawdust and wood chips.
But Cline is back at work, because he has five short days to round up buyers and sellers for the next auction - assuming there isn't a special sale earlier in the week.
"Markets go up and markets go down," Cline said. "Every day is a different day, believe it or not. You're always at the mercy of who walks in the door."