A first-ever beef cattle exhibition, planned in just a few short months, demonstrates how the agricultural industry has found ways to adapt and persevere in the midst of a challenging and unpredictable viral pandemic.

The Cattlemen’s Congress in Oklahoma City, which wrapped up January 17, was built from the ground up and on the fly, with the goal of creating an event by cattlemen and for cattlemen.

“It was the most exhibitor-friendly show I’ve ever been to,” said Jirl Buck, owner of Buck Cattle Co. of Madill, Oklahoma. “That’s not just my opinion, I think you’d find a lot of people feel that way. To me, it’s a great compliment to the state of Oklahoma.”

The historic National Western Stock Show in January is often described as the Super Bowl of the purebred industry. But when officials in Denver announced postponing it for a year due to restrictions on large gatherings, many breed associations were left without a venue for hosting their national shows and sales.

Jarold Callahan, the long time president of Yukon-based Express Ranches, was quick to recognize both a problem and an opportunity. He knew Oklahoma had the resources to stage an alternative, with 900,000 square feet of indoor barn space at the Oklahoma fairgrounds and an energetic staff already experienced at running the annual spring Oklahoma Youth Expo, billed as the nation’s largest youth livestock show.

“Another group instrumental in making this happen was the 20 interns — unpaid I might add — students at Oklahoma State who jumped in and helped, and they’ve been tremendous,” Callahan said. “A lot of FFA chapters from around Oklahoma also pitched in.”

In the end, exhibitors from 44 states brought roughly 12,000 head of cattle representing 33 different breeds. That compares to around 9,000 head of cattle exhibited in Denver last year, Callahan said.

State and local officials embraced the benefit it brought to the ailing hospitality industry.

“I’m excited to see what the economic footprint will be,” said Blake Nelson, executive vice president of the American Maine-Anjou Association, another member of the show’s board. “Early predictions are it will be $30 million, but I’d be willing to predict it will far surpass that. It was obvious the restaurants and hotels were overwhelmed and so happy to see folks come to town and patronize their establishments.”

On with the show

Entries and preparations for a national breed show are literally years in the making, according to David Imhoff, the northeastern representative for the Oklahoma Red Angus Association.

He gave the example of his son Nicholas, who bought semen on his first trip to the National Western three years ago. With that semen, Nicholas bred “Locked In,” a coming two-year-old bull that won reserve champion in his division at the Congress, making him one of the breed’s top bulls.

In the barns following the show, Nicholas was approached by another breeder who bought a sizeable interest in the bull and plans to continue showing him during his final year of eligibility.

None of that would have happened if the national show had been scrapped.

“It was very impressive to me that the breeders and the associations cared enough to make sure we had a show,” said Nicholas, who works as an industrial contractor in addition to ranching with his family near Stroud, Oklahoma. “It was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to with the way it was run.”

Optimism for the future

National breed events are scheduled early in the year to rally enthusiasm and provide a barometer of what’s ahead for the spring bull sale season.

The Congress proved there’s plenty of optimism in the cattle business in spite of the turmoil and uncertainty of recent months. Many breeds saw record show entries and strong sale results.

Jeff Mafi, Oklahoma and Kansas field representative for the American Angus Association, said prices were steady to higher at five different Angus sales held in conjunction with the show. The national bull sale average was $1,000 higher than a year ago. “

I do think there’s a lot of optimism,” said Mafi, who runs purebred cows west of Stillwater. “There have been times this fall when the market’s been pretty good, and there’s been an opportunity to take advantage of the rallies. Life goes on, and people still need to add new genetics to their program.”

The Hereford Association also hosted a strong sale.

“With everything that’s going on, it’s hard not to get a little down, but out in the country the numbers and the cattle inventory favors a strong market going forward, and I think people see that,” noted Shane Bedwell, chief operating officer and director of breed improvement for the American Hereford Association, another show board member.

Roger Wann, who is getting ready to host an annual production bull sale on March 16 at his ranch near Poteau, Oklahoma, attended the Congress and liked what he saw and heard.

“I thought the enthusiasm at the show was excellent,” he observed. “The national bull sale was standing room only, as was the Bases Loaded Angus female sale. Both were well attended with brisk bidding. I came away feeling that the spring season is going to be just fine.”

His commercial customers have also expressed confidence in the markets and the industry outlook, he said.

Show could become permanent

As for the future of the Congress, breed association leaders will survey their members before deciding whether to make it a permanent event. Callahan said they would probably make that call sometime in March.

“Is it needed? Is it wanted? I think the answer is probably yes,” he said.

Organizers and participants were particularly impressed by the strong support of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who helped hand out awards during the Supreme Drive, a “best of the best” parade of breed champions.

The Maine-Anjou’s Nelson said the upheaval of 2020 forced the industry to improvise and explore new options.

“I think there’s room for another show on the circuit if the timing can play out so they can all fit,” he mused. “The last time there was a change to a major stock show was when the International Livestock Expo in Chicago moved to Louisville. That’s been awhile back, but it seemed to work out pretty well.”

As some of the larger urban cities become more “land-locked” and politically scrutinized, it’s more difficult for show organizers to provide the best possible experience for exhibitors and cattle producers regardless of their best intentions, he added.

“This could open the door to looking at some more agriculture-friendly venues,” he said. “I think this past year has forced us to realize change isn’t always bad. It might be uncomfortable in the beginning, but we can open our mind and look at alternatives.”

“One thing we know,” he concluded, “as agriculturalists, it’s not in us to just give up on anything.”

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