Torrington Livestock Markets adds technology, ensures service to buyers and seller
Torrington — “Oliver Dicken told me that when you crawl behind that mic it doesn’t matter if they have three head or 300 head, you’re going to take care of your customer,” says Lex Madden, who owns and operates Torrington Livestock Markets with his brother Shawn and business partner Michael Schmitt of Henry, Neb.
“At the same time,” says Lex, “you have to be respectful of the buyers and treat them fairly so they’ll come back.” Oliver Dicken, who passed away eight years ago, was a friend, a partner in Torrington Livestock Markets and a mentor to the Madden brothers. In addition to the sale barn, the Maddens have several other businesses in the Torrington area including a hay auction, a farm auction service and a real estate business.
The Petsch family from Scottsbluff, Neb. built Torrington Livestock Commission Co. in 1934. Mac Swanson purchased it in the early 1940s and sold it to L.W. Maxfield in 1949. Maxfield continually improved the sale facility, including the addition of a ring scale in the 1960s.
In the mid 1980s Maxfield sold the yards to his sons, Mike and Lester, Jr., and Oliver Dicken, who had worked for Maxfield as an auctioneer for several years.
“Shawn and I grew up at Lusk where my dad had the sale barn in the 1950s and the 1960s,” says Lex. “Shawn moved down here in 1979 and I came down in about 1980. We started out in real estate and doing machinery auctions. We started working the ring for Maxfield and we were auctioneering a little bit.”
In 1989 Mike and Oliver sold half interest to Shawn and Lex Madden, who at the time were leasing and operating Stockman Livestock south of Torrington. The four partners then purchased Stockman Livestock, completing the merger of the two salebarn companies into Torrington Livestock Markets, Inc.
When Oliver Dicken passed away the Madden brothers acquired the remaining shares and they’ve since added Michael, who has been working for the business for 17 years, as a partner. The south barn, following the McClun Bull Sale in April 2009, was closed and torn down.
Lex says a great group of employees have helped make the family’s growing businesses successful. Torrington Livestock Markets employs 35 people full time and another 60 to 70 people on a part-time basis. Around another 20 people work as field representatives for Torrington Livestock Markets, which sells up to 19,000 head per week. “They’re a fantastic group of people,” says Lex. “They make what we do possible.”
Improvements in the facilities, the technology and sale offerings have continually been made over the years at the north barn. It’s been 19 years since the barn began offering video auction services and since that time they’ve incorporated more technology, including online marketing services.
“We’ve done a lot of remodeling here,” says Michael. “We’ve built better vet facilities. We have self feeders, automatic water and the whole yard is cement.”
“A couple of years ago,” says Lex, “with the brucellosis and having to bleed so many cattle, we built a covered facility for the vet checks.” Given recent changes in the rules surrounding brucellosis management, only those cattle originating from the Designated Brucellosis Surveillance Area of northwest Wyoming are being bled.
In the roughly 30 years the Maddens have been marketing livestock, they’ve seen a lot of change. “Recently,” says Lex, “the biggest change is technology. Everybody has a cell phone and a computer. They know what the market is before they drive in. While at home they can sit and watch our sale on Cattle USA when they come in for lunch.”
With that new information, says Michael, has come a more informed and educated rancher. “The ranchers are more educated on market conditions and what the buyers are looking for. Buyers keep track of those things and they know which ranchers do things right.”
Lex says they plan to do more to help producers become increasingly informed. Mid-November Torrington Livestock Markets hosted a producer education day that they plan to make an annual event. Preconditioning and age and source verification were among the topics discussed at this year’s inaugural event.
“We are trying to get people to precondition more and to age and source verify their cattle,” says Lex. He says they realize that given the size of some ranches, aging ranchers and the shortage of labor, that there are ranches where that’s difficult to accomplish.
Ranchers who can market cattle that are preconditioned and age and source verified may, however, see increased interest in their offering. “I recently talked to a buyer who was at a South Dakota sale,” says Lex. “Over 8,000 calves went through the ring and all but one bunch was preconditioned. We have people who show up and only bid on the calves if they’re preconditioned.”
“We are proponents of auction marketing and price discovery,” says Lex. “We live, breath and die by it whether it’s auctioning off cattle, a horse, real estate or farm machinery.”
As part of that, he says they go to great lengths ensuring that as many people as is possible know about their sales and what’s being offered. For an early December machinery auction, over 10,000 flyers were mailed to interested parties. Leading up to a recent bred cow sale, over 1,200 flyers were sent out.
Michael says Lex makes numerous phone calls leading up to sales. “We really believe in contacting the buyers,” says Michael. “We want to tell them about the sales.”
As part of the “information age,” as it relates to cattle marketing, Lex says people want more details about the cattle. “If they’re bringing cattle,” he says of ranchers, “if they can let us know what they’re bringing and the information about them, it helps us market them. We want to be sure that the buyer gets what he’s expecting.”
Torrington’s hay auction has earned widespread attention for their innovative approach. Unlike some hay auctions, where the hay has to be delivered to the auction site and then redirected to the winning bidder, Torrington’s approach draws on modern technology.
“As opposed to having the expense of getting the hay here,” says Michael, “we have Barry McRea take core samples.” The data, along with photographs of the hay, can be seen online during the sale. Of their nationwide broadcasts, whether it’s for hay or cattle, he says it’s common to have between 500 and 700 people logged on and watching the sale.
“During a bred cow special we had last fall,” says Lex, “we had 886 people logged on. Some people were just watching and some were registered buyers.”
“We have more specialty buyers than we used to,” says Lex. “We sort cattle more. Twenty-nine years ago it was more bring them in, load them and get them out of here. Today there are more niche markets.”
“It’s in the ring where you learn the business,” says Michael. “As they’re entering the ring you have to determine what they weigh, what they’re going to bring and who is going to buy them. Lex and Shawn are the best at it. They know all that when the cattle walk in the ring.”
In 1998 Lex won the title of “World Champion Auctioneer.” In 2001, Shawn won the title. It’s fitting that the two national champions are the auctioneers at the business that in 1999 became the nation’s largest independent livestock market.
“Our quality of cattle makes us unique,” says Lex. “There are some really tremendous registered breeders in this five-state region. We have a lot of good genetics and cattle from here perform well. They know they’re getting performance and they’re good northern cattle.”
“Buyers watch our Wyoming ranches,” says Michael. While they’re competing for the same bulls at the bull sales, he says the cattle run in some tough conditions. Once they arrive at the feedlot, he says, “A lot of Wyoming cattle will perform above average.”
Jennifer Womack is a staff writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at Jennifer@wylr.net.