After 75 years, Idaho market remains vital for cattlemen

Sep 18, 2009


Every Friday, Cole Erb finds there’s no end of activity at the Blackfoot Livestock Auction that he bought in southeast Idaho nine years ago. Not only can cattle be heard bellowing in the scores of sorting pens outside the main building, ranchers eager to get the best deals on livestock are busy chattering inside.


Erb is a third-generation livestock sale yard operator. His grandfather, Floyd Skelton, owned and operated a livestock auction in Idaho Falls. His father and brother—John and Calvin Erb— still own and operate an auction in Dillon, MT.

Erb grew up in Dillon, but lived in Challis, ID, before moving to Blackfoot. His wife, Sara, also is actively involved in the business, which has become almost as much a popular social gathering as it is a place to buy and sell bulls, steers, heifers and calves each week. The smell of morning coffee and fried eggs wafts into the front office area from an adjoining cafe.

“It sounded like a good deal, and we thought we would try it,” Erb says, reflecting on how he, Sara, and their five children ended up in Blackfoot. The Erbs bought the auction from Noel Beasley in 2000 after hearing it was for sale. “It went through quite a few hands the last 20 years.”

His auction property is strategically located on Rich Lane, just east of Highway 91, the old highway that links Blackfoot with Pocatello to the south and Idaho Falls to the north, eastern Idaho’s two largest population centers. On average, 150 to 300 head are sold each week, but those weekly sales have been known to exceed 1,800 head.

Erb says his biggest challenge has been retaining good help with the ability to work with cattle and understand them. “My first challenge was I may have grown up around a sale yard, but I didn’t know how to manage one.”

About 20 are employed at the Blackfoot Livestock Auction. Working with large volumes of cattle, each weighing many hundreds or thousands of pounds, can be dangerous.

Dean Elmer, who has worked at the auction for decades, says he mostly tags cows and bulls as they run through chutes, but most of the cattle sold are cows and calves. Autumn is his busiest time of the year as cattle come out of the hills. Brad Pannel, who has worked at the auction for 20 years, remembers working straight through from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. one especially busy time.

Another major challenging issue for the auction, Erb says, is workers compensation needed in the event of accident or injury. The auction also provides cattle vaccinations compatible with state laws.

Erb sends out market letters in the mail and maintains a bulletin board on the Blackfoot Livestock Auction’s website at“We can update it, but it’s not very interactive,” he says.

One significant advantage Erb feels he has over competitors is his well-designed complex where cattle are efficiently moved from corrals into the auction arena in the rear of the main building. Bidders go up stairs to enter the stadium overlooking the arena where the livestock enter through one door, electronically operated, and exit another.

Erb often is on the dirt prodding and guiding the cattle with a long staff. Welltrained dogs can be heard yelping at hesitant heifers from the side entrance to keep them moving.

He concedes the cattle market is not the greatest for ranchers trying to turn profits. “Prices are not up so these guys can make a living,” Erb observes. “It’s up from 10 years ago, but not substantially. It’s not real sustainable. Banks are clamping down pretty hard all over.”

One trend that also is hurting the Blackfoot Livestock Auction is satellite video sales in which buyers can inspect cattle throughout the nation via television screens.

“One of the bigger concerns for me and producers is eco-terrorist groups that pose as legitimate organizations,” Erb said, noting those violent extremists and radical animal rights activists view it as their duty to block the sale of livestock for consumption as meat.

Cattle raisers in the region also are concerned the Obama administration could reimpose inheritance or death taxes, which can wipe out their estates and prevent them from passing their heritage onto their ranching families. “Then they would have to sell their places to pay the taxes,” Erb says, which would adversely impact small ranches in the area.

Livestock producers also dislike the fact recent Idaho Power rate hikes have shot up 15 percent for irrigators as opposed to only 4 percent for residences and 5-6 percent for commercial customers. “We typically do about as well as the producer,” Erb says of his sale yard.

“When the dairy business was so good, it made the hay they wanted to buy a lot more expensive,” but the ongoing dairy industry slump has hurt the slaughter cow market.

The number one benefit of doing business with the Blackfoot Livestock Auction is that legitimate checks are honored and sellers get paid for their cattle, Erb says.

The auction has come a long way since its inception

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