ST. ONGE | With the nod of a Stetson or the wave of a hand, the livestock auctioneer’s chant entices a higher and higher price for skittish cattle, circling in a sale ring tinged with the aroma of dirt and manure.
The auctioneer's role in helping ranchers get top dollar when they market their calves, representing months of toil, cannot be overstated, said Russele Sleep of Bedford, Iowa.
“We’re taking a rancher’s whole year of work and we could sell his whole year’s income in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes,” said Sleep, this year’s reigning World Livestock Auctioneer Champion.
Sleep won his world champion title at the 56th annual World Livestock Association competition in Tulare, Calif., in June.
According to a news release, Sleep has contended for the title in nine of the last 10 years. He was 2016 Reserve Champion Auctioneer, and earned his spot in this year’s competition by winning the LMA’s Midwest Qualifying event.
Twenty-nine other semi-finalists also qualified through three regional qualifying events.
As this year’s champion auctioneer, Sleep will make appearances at sale barns across the country. Last week he worked weekly sales at markets in Belle Fourche and St. Onge.
“Been here at St. Onge several times,” he said. “Great place. Great cattle.
“I kind of show off my talents a little bit, but also thank the customers and appreciate the buyers for marketing their livestock through a fixed auction site like this one," he said.
St. Onge Livestock Co. general manager Justin Tupper said he appreciates Sleep’s professionalism and his promotion of the auction approach to selling livestock.
“He’s a sound individual. Not only a great chant, but a great understanding of the value of livestock, which is imperative for an auctioneer,” Tupper said.
Sleep became interested in the auction business as a boy, attending markets in southwest Iowa with his father.
“I always liked that part. Auctioneering came natural to me, so I kind of pursued that,” he said.
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He is a graduate of the Missouri Auction School, and works as a contract auctioneer for Knoxville Regional Livestock Market, Fort Scott Livestock Market, Inc., Southeast Kansas Stockyards LLC, Clarinda Livestock Auction, Inc., Russell Livestock Market and Green City Livestock Marketing LLC.
He developed his signature auctioneer’s chant over the years by combining bits of other champion auctioneers' styles with his own.
A good, smooth chant, along with intimate knowledge of the markets and the livestock being sold are traits of a successful auctioneer, he said.
“You need to know what the value is in what you’re selling,” he said. “You need to have good personal relationships with your buyers and customers.”
“He also has a great way of dealing with the crowd,” Tupper said. “The auctioneer’s job is interaction with the buyers and sellers and he has a great knack for that. He’s a great representative for the auction business.”
An auctioneer is charged with getting as much as they can within current market conditions, called true price discovery, for producers selling their livestock.
The key is an action-filled sale, he said. The constant chant, and moving the livestock out of the ring before the sale is complete, help add a sense of urgency for bidders, who naturally attend in the hopes of buying something under its value — getting a deal.
“If you bring them a good product and competitive bidding, 90% of the time that product is going to bring more than what they anticipated. But it’s the competitiveness that makes them give a little more,” he said.
Sleep will visit markets across the country during his time as world champion. He has already seen cattle from many different markets in his travels.
“There’s good cattle everywhere, but it seems like out here in western South Dakota, eastern Montana, northwest Nebraska, there’s some of the best cattle in the world right here,” he said.
And when markets are down, with commodity prices low as they are now, the auctioneer’s role is even more vital.
"When the markets are not at their best, when we’re not taking home the most profits, that’s when we definitely have to grind out every last dollar we can get for them. That’s what those auctioneers do every day,” Tupper said.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do but there’s a lot of money being traded here and it’s at the hands of us to make sure we get the value, and get all we can get,” Sleep said. “Because that’s what that rancher and his family will live on for the rest of the year.”