“Yaay-hey,” he says, launching into a rapid-chant, tumbling out numbers that slowly climb. As the bids bounce between the men, Robinson keeps it going by mixing commentary in the same sing-song:
“A year-and-a-half old, a year-and-a-half old, look-a-there; a lotta color, just a year-and-a-half old, and a good baby, I’m a talkin’ about …”
The Carroll County Livestock Sales Barn is the rural version of a trading floor on Wall Street, except the stock in the market is, well, livestock. Cattlemen from 30 counties – not just in Georgia – have come to Carrollton to watch this sale, and it is a little bit like theater. They sit row-on-row in tiers, looking down at the ring, which is like a small stage enclosed by steel bars.
They enjoy each other’s company, but these men (and some women) did not come here just to enjoy the show. Each of them is a businessman, and raising cattle is a major industry in Georgia. With annual cash receipts of $262 million, cattle markets like this, and some two dozen other sales venues spread across the state, play an integral role in the state’s $2 billion beef industry.
“We’ve got to eat,” says Robinson, neatly summing up why cattle farms remain important to Carroll County. His job as barn manager is to bring buyers and cattle farmers together, and he has seen increasing numbers of both
“We have a big selection of buyers for the farmers to bring their cattle,” he said. “Used to, there weren’t any buyers and now we average in 800 head a week. So there’s plenty of cattle to go around, and more buyers are coming.”
This does not mean the sales barn has not had to change with the times. It is a co-op, owned by the cattle farmers it serves, but Carroll County is not the farming community it once was; one-time productive farms in the county have changed hands to a generation more interested in other career fields, not grassy fields.
“Owners, they quit or they passed away and they gave their stock to their kids that live in Atlanta, or Florida – or they don’t have any cattle.”
As a consequence, Robinson has had to reach out to neighboring counties, including those far beyond Carrollton, for new co-op members.
“We’ve been getting them from the other side of Anniston, Ala., Piedmont, Cave Spring, up that way … Manchester, Calhoun, Wedowee, Ala.”
The sales barn has been in business since the 1950s, Robinson said, when it used to conduct sales in Carrollton. The current sales barn, located out on the Bankhead Highway, has been in place since the mid-1970s. In all those years, the date and time of the weekly sales been permanently mounted as a sign on the front of the building: “Sale Every Monday Noon.”
But Robinson is planning something new this year – two special sales of stock cattle, the first of which will be in the early spring.
“That means cows to go home (and) be bred,” he said. “I’m working on a sale that will be either the second week in March or the third week in March, I haven’t determined which day yet, but that will be cattle that will be wormed, vaccinated; the calves will be wormed, Blackleg vaccinated; everything, ready to go home and go to work for you.”
He said he knows of no other stockyards that prepare animals in this way before a sale “so when you buy one, it’s already good.”
Cattle farmers start bringing their stock to the sales barn on the weekend before, but on sales day there is a steady procession of pickup trucks pulling cattle trailers coming up to the rear of the barn, where they check the animals in. The animals are tagged with an oval sticker with an identifying number, then sent into the large interior of the barn, where there are about 100 numbered pens waiting for them. Some of the pens hold only a few cattle; others are packed.
While the farmers wait for the sale, they might have a cup of coffee or a hot meal from the on-site restaurant – or they might walk back and forth along the catwalk mounted above the pens, looking over the livestock and making mental notes if they are in the market for replacement animals. As this goes on, the barn is full of mournful moos or bellicose bellows.
When the auction starts, Robinson and his staff take their places down in the ring, while the buyers and spectators take their seats above. The animals are sent into the ring from one side and exit through the other, while the ringmen use their sticks to keep them moving.
With some 600 animals to be sold during the afternoon, the sale moves pretty fast — almost as fast as Robinson’s rapid-fire call. As individual cows, heifers or bull calves are brought into the ring, their tag numbers and weight appear on big-screen TVs mounted above. When Robinson pronounces the animal “sold,” the price is also displayed.
In the stands, the spectators watch the sale, sipping coffee or leaning toward their neighbor for a short chat. They are old hands at this. But among them are one or two children who have been brought in by fathers and grandfathers – grandmothers, too – and look on with some excitement.
It’s a good sign that the sales barn will stay in business for many Mondays to come.