By JOHN O'CONNELL
BLACKFOOT, Idaho -- As a child, Cole Erb was prone to mischief at his father's Dillon, Mont., livestock auction, sometimes interrupting bidding by riding into the ring on a sheep's back.
"Everybody would get so mad," Erb recalled. "Kids at auctions drive everybody crazy. They're always in the way or in trouble."
Erb, who bought the Blackfoot livestock auction with his brother in 2000, is now a third-generation auction proprietor. Auctions -- an industry in decline due to increasing competition from Internet sales, video sales and cattle receiving yards -- have been central to his life. In fact, he met his wife, Sara, through the Blackfoot auction, which was once partially owned by her uncle, Delwyn Ellis. Erb's grandfather, Floyd Skelton, ran the Idaho Falls auction for several years.
Erb's father, John, and brother, Cal, still run the Dillon auction together.
"It's amazing how many people you can come to know over the years from such a wide area," Erb said. "That's the funnest job in the world, running an auction."
From winter through early spring, they sell 2,000-3,000 head of cattle every Friday. Sales will drop to 500-600 head per week through their slow summer season. On an annual basis, Erb said sales have remained steady for several years.
Dennis Lake, a partner in the auction with Ellis in the 1970s and 1980s, believes sales were far greater in those days, when a cattleman's only options were to sell at auction or directly to a customer. Lake still attends the auction weekly.
"It is a social event for some people. My sons are all here just to have lunch," Lake said during a recent Friday auction.
State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst explained auctions serve the vital purpose of establishing the true market price for the industry. He added veterinarians always staff auctions to address health issues, and auctions assume the risk if a buyer's check doesn't clear. There were 18 auctions in Idaho when Hayhurst started his job. Now there are eight.
Erb said auctions are important for small producers who don't deal in entire truckloads of livestock, required of video purchases.
Erb believes the key to running a successful auction is "supporting the market." Toward that end, he personally bids on livestock when prices are below market value and buys several animals to feed or sell at a later auction.
"You just get involved in the process, make sure the cattle bring what they're worth," Erb said. "We want to support the seller, and we want him happy so he'll come back."
Brian Smith, with Bar S Cattle in Rigby, Idaho, explained about five buyers purchase 90 percent of the cattle at most auctions. He attends auctions every weekday, and he's always among that select group. He likens buying livestock at auctions to gambling in Las Vegas. He acknowledges it's frustrating that buyers don't leave Blackfoot often with a steal.
"Of all the auctions, they protect their market," Smith said after placing the winning bids on 151 cattle. "Any buyer will tell you that. They'll bid it up."