Bull market: Cattle sales strong for area ranchers

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POLSON – Though Jon and Liz Marchi’s sprawling cattle ranch offers striking views of both the Flathead River and the Mission Mountains, on Saturday, all eyes were on their livestock, as ranchers came from far and wide for the Marchi Angus Ranches’ 22nd Annual Production Sale.

The Marchis have had their ranch since 1985, and sustain about 400 head of cattle on 1,200 bucolic acres. Their herd consists mostly of Angus, though in recent years they have started to raise some Wagyu, a Japanese cattle breed renown for producing Kobe beef. The primary business on the ranch is the production of breeding stock that is auctioned to fellow ranchers at bi-annual sales – one in the spring, and another in the fall.

This fall’s sale featured 45 hand-picked bulls and heifers up for bid, 43 of which had attracted buyers once the dust settled from the weekend’s frenzy of activity.

Jon reported that heifers sold for an average price in the $1,400 range, while bulls went for $1,700 and up. An Angus bull with a price tag of $2,500 marked the auction’s most expensive entrant.

According to Jon, the prices fetched by his cattle were higher than usual, a phenomenon he attributes to the simple laws of supply and demand.

“The supply of beef cattle in the U.S. has declined dramatically over the last five to seven years, mostly because of the droughts we’ve been having in the southwest and the Texas area… and in Wyoming and Eastern Montana this year,” Marchi said of the national cattle stock, which has approached a fifty-year low.

“People are cutting back significantly on cattle because they can’t afford to buy hay,” Marchi continued. “It’s at all-time highs - $200-$300 a ton. Typically it would be $60 a ton, maybe $70.”

Despite the ecological and economic pressures on ranchers, public demand for beef remains unabated.

“So the supply side has gone way down, but the demand side has hung right in there despite the recession,” Jon said. ”It’s just a supply and demand situation.”

Even though the Marchis’ land is irrigated, they have not been spared from the negative effects of drought, themselves. Jon estimates that they contend with drought every five years or so, including a “significant” episode two years ago that saw a reduction in their irrigation water.

“That was bad for everybody,” recalls Jon.

But worries about water and the day-in, day-out business of ranching takes a backseat on Sale Day, when the Marchis take full advantage of the chance to develop lasting relationships with customers over food and drinks. Liz says that their transactions span state lines, and many of their clients become repeat customers.

“Most of our buyers have been buying from us for a long time,” says Liz.

Prior to the auction’s deadline, prospective bidders carefully eye the herd, looking for a few select attributes. Jon says that temperament is one of the most crucial factors to consider.

“Temperament is very important for a couple reasons. Animals with quiet temperament are easier to handle and have a lower risk of injury,” said Jon. “(Also,) they grow better, they stay healthier, they eat more, and they’re less likely to have diseases. So temperament is a big deal.”

Other important traits include weaning weight and calving ease, or the ability to give birth without assistance.

Liz admits that “there is a sense of relief” to have successfully concluded the fall sale, but says that Jon “is already jumping in and getting ready for next spring.”

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