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National Western: The Super Bowl of the cattle industry

Amy Schutte for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 December 2018
National Western

If the thought of seeing more than 22 different cattle breeds in one place makes you want to jump in your truck or board a plane for Denver, then you won’t want to miss the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo (NWSS).

For some, NWSS offers a vacation from a busy ranch life; for others, it’s a place to survey the cattle landscape or meet with genetic companies, but most of all, it’s one of the best places to build lasting industry relationships.

From Jan. 12 -27, more than 700,000 livestock, rodeo and trade show enthusiasts are expected to participate in the biggest stock show in North America – and if you’re planning on going, past attendees say you shouldn’t show up without plenty of business cards to hand out.

Likened to the “Super Bowl of the cattle industry” by Ty Walter of Walter Angus, whether you exhibit or just browse the genetic cattle buffet, the core benefit of attending boils down to making connections.

“The majority of the live lots we pay attention to are heifers, so we can see new progenies for up-and-coming sires,” Walter said. “We have a bull sale every year, so we meet potential new buyers who can swing in and see the bulls we’ll be selling in February, and it’s a good time to reconnect with our customers.”

Marshall Ernst, the senior director of livestock operations for NWSS, said the show is the epicenter for national breed sales.

“National Western presents the opportunity to see the cutting edge of the purebred industry and see a large number of cattle in one place,” he said. “Our goal is to be the seedstock base for the commercial industry. If you are looking for bulls, there are a lot here for sale.”

Ernst said the ability to walk into pens and get a good feel for a particular breeder’s program without the typical distractions of ranch life is a huge benefit.

“Your pen is an extension of your ranch. If you walk into someone’s pen, you don’t have distractions from anything else, and the owners are there, or their ranch managers are there, and you can have meaningful conversations without any distractions,” Ernst said. “The commercial man may think the purebred bulls may be out of their price range, but that’s not the case.

Producer's pen at NWSS

There are plenty of bulls that fit different budgets. Researching different pedigrees, different genetics and being able to see cattle from numerous parts of the country as well as Canadian cattle is a huge bonus.”

More than 10,000 animals are exhibited at the show and, for Casey Kelley of Running Creek Ranch, it’s the only show where they exhibit their Limousin bulls.

“It’s the best place to meet new prospective customers every year and, in terms of seeing the elite of the nation’s seedstock producers, that can only be done at the National Western,” Kelley said. “While we have a closed herd, we shop for prospective A.I. sales while we are there.”

Kelley said the attraction from a commercial standpoint is the ability to see pens and carloads of bulls.

Producer's pen at NWSS

“It’s a good place to see thousands of bulls of different breeds in one location,” he said. “The major and primary breeds are all penned and housed there in the yards. Some breeders come to display their cattle, and some breeders have a production sale later on. We do private treaty breeder sales in Denver and reserve for a later point in time.”

Ernst said the Hereford, embryo and semen sales often tip past the million-dollar mark but, for most of the attendees, including Walter, it’s the face-to-face connections attendees will find priceless.

“Where a lot of us are still old school, and we’d rather call someone than text them and take them to lunch, it’s a big deal,” Walter said. “Being personal with people isn’t something ag has gone away from. We’ve hosted a group of cattlemen from Mexico in the past to show them the new genetics for breeding, since Colorado’s environment is very similar to that of Mexico. It’s a great opportunity to visit with those guys and even see cattle from Canada.”

Craig Beran, who serves on the American Hereford Association national board of directors and is an owner of B&D Herefords, has been exhibiting cattle for the past 20 years and said it’s been an amazing exposure for their program of Straight Line 1 Hereford cattle and a good way to bring interest to their March production sale.

“We feel it’s the best place to have your genetics on display for the commercial man. It’s the top genetics the purebred breeders have raised. Everyone brings the best of the best,” Beran said. “There is a tremendous amount of herd sire potential out there. And sometimes they aren’t priced any higher than what you are paying at home at a sale. For the most part, the really progressive breeders are there, so this is the place to find the best in the country.”

Beran said his ranch has sold cattle into Scotland in the past because of the exposure they’ve had at the show – and the best part, besides seeing the multitude of livestock, is the relationships he’s built along the way.

“The cattle industry is amazing. We were stalled right next to someone from Indiana one year and, by the time the show was over, we were like long-lost relatives,” he said. “It’s that way down in the yards. Everyone is there eight or nine days, and you spend a lot of time walking around talking to everyone.

It’s like a bunch of neighbors at home. And for us, especially if you raise Herefords, it’s considered the biggest show. The National Western has always been the show. We take what we feel is best. For the commercial man, they see the best of the best out there. None of us take our average bulls to represent.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: National Western Stock Show offers more than just a place to buy or sell. For many seedstock producers, it’s the gathering that brings clients back together for an old-school social gathering.

PHOTO 2 & 3: When you step into a producer’s pen at NWSS, it is like an extension of their ranch. Discussions are friendly and build meaningful business relationships.  Staff photos.

Amy Schutte is a freelance writer based in southern Idaho.