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Buyers, sellers still flock to sale barns to trade livestock

Kevin Kirby corrals a couple heifers sold as a pair at the Southern Illinois Equine Sale barn in Goreville. Some aspects of livestock sales have gone high-tech, but live auctions still are the preferred method of buying cattle for many producers.

GOREVILLE — It’s the second Monday of the month, and employees at the Southern Illinois Equine Sale are busy. Meanwhile, dozens of restless heifers, calves and culled bulls wait in the wings.

Bid numbers are given to prospective buyers, telephone calls are fielded, and last-minute preparations are made for the first of two cattle auctions in March. Kevin Kirby, the facility’s livestock manager, is one of those running around making sure everything is ready to go.

Despite the front that has interrupted an otherwise mild winter with cold temperatures, snow and fog, a good crowd arrives for the auction. In this area, at least, sale barns are still big business.

Kirby doesn’t see electronic livestock marketing cutting into live auctions. In fact, in some ways it may be helping. The barn he runs is one of two in this Johnson County community of about 1,000.

“It blows my mind how many people see this on Facebook and other online platforms and show up here,” he said. “We’ve been blessed.”

Kirby has been around animal agriculture a long time. He served with University of Illinois Extension as an animal systems specialist. He managed other sale barns before joining owner Chris Ray, a Tennessee native who purchased the Goreville barn 20 years ago.

Digital technology has moved into animal auctions in a big way. But many involved in livestock see it as being complementary rather than adversarial to live sales.

Salem resident Glen Gordon Jr., who managed sale barns for decades in a number of Illinois communities, said a few may have closed over the past decade or so. But there is still a strong auction presence across Illinois.

“We’ve probably lost two or three across the entire state over the last few years,” he said. “Everyone is holding pretty steady.”

Gordon, who now operates as a freelance cattle trader, said the internet has boosted live auctions.

“I think it’s increased the number of people looking,” he said. “The younger generation, that’s the way they like to do business. If they see something they like, they’ll make the drive. Overall, it increases the number of potential bidders.”

Social media and other methods of online outreach have opened up livestock sales to a wider audience, Gordon believes.

“You’ll see a lot more on all these Angus bull sales and others,” he said. “If you go to those nowadays you always see some kind of internet company in the corner, so guys can bid online. That buyer doesn’t have to physically drive to that sale.”

Video sales have become more common in recent years. Not everyone sees them as a good thing.

“I can’t agree with the video sales,” said Travis Diekemper of Greenville Livestock Auction. “You can’t necessarily see exactly what you’re buying.”

The barn at Greenville isn’t slowing down. It has beef cattle sales every Wednesday and also has sheep and goat auctions.

Despite its name, horses make up just a part of sales at the Southern Illinois Equine facility. Besides the two beef cattle auctions each month, the barn also hosts auctions of goats and sheep. Ray started it as a vehicle for horse sales, but demand has driven expansion.

“He runs a lot of horses through here,” Kirby said. “And we’ve got the biggest goat auction in Illinois. We run between 400 and 500 head every month.”

To Gordon, out-of-state sale barns pose more competition than video sales.

“You do see a lot of cattle go out of state,” he said. “They’ll go west into Missouri. It seems like sometimes there’s a little more money over there.”

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