The first cow ushered into the WNC Regional Livestock Center in Canton weighed 850 well-proportioned pounds. Despite being two-months pregnant, she danced lithely about the livestock arena, easily sidestepping the green, long plastic paddle a handler occasionally dabbed in her direction.
“Get your hands up in the air and let ‘er rip,” the auctioneer said excitedly to a crowd of hundreds, so many that people were lined along the walls two and three deep, and even spilled out into the hallways. This was a ballcaps-and-boots-kind of crowd, mainly men, though there were some women and, despite this being a school day, even a few kids. So many people showed up, the state Highway Patrol turned out, too, directing the long lines of traffic coming off Interstate 40.
The cow, an attractive blonde, fetched $750.
And so went the first sale at the first major cattle market in Western North Carolina since a livestock auction in Asheville closed seven years ago. It required the push of local farmers, and money from willing donors, to make the WNC Regional Livestock Center a reality — more than $3 million from various organizations, businesses and producers financed the building that houses the market.
“We came together three or four years ago to start organizing for a new market,” said Bruce Peterson of WNC Communities, a collaborative regional group that works on quality-of-life projects such as the new regional livestock center. “We didn’t need to take all this money out of state.”
That’s what Alden Childers of Swain County would have done if this regional livestock center hadn’t opened. He and friend Clarence Wiggins, also of Bryson City, would have hauled the cattle they brought to Canton this day — including a bull they picked up along the way in Jackson County — to Tennessee perhaps, or maybe even down into Georgia.
Michael Vanhook wanted to bring a few head over from Macon County to sell, but didn’t get them rounded up in time. Instead, he and Jerry Sutton of Franklin just watched the show, like so many here this day.
Vanhook, who stays busy raising and selling cattle after retiring from Franklin High School, says a new market this close to home helps those in the cattle business.
That’s because hauling cattle costs gas money, time and stresses the animals, said Boyce Deitz, a regional aid for Congressman Heath Shuler (and Shuler’s former Swain County football coach).
His boss was on hand to meet and greet and take in the show, but Deitz was all business — and his business this fine Monday was selling the four heifers and a steer he’d hauled over the Balsams from his pastures in Jackson County. That’s obviously a lot closer than taking the animals all the way to Tennessee, he noted.
“It would’ve taken me about two hours,” Deitz said. “If you unloaded right then and came back, it was a day’s journey and a tank of fuel.”
Lucas Tipton doesn’t expect to save time driving his cattle to Canton, though he’s happy the market opened. He lives in Burnsville, and with about 100 head, he keeps busy driving to buy and sell at a variety of cattle markets. Tipton will frequent Canton on Mondays for this weekly market, and be in Chesnee, S.C. on Tuesdays, and all the way up in Abingdon, Va., on Friday and Saturdays.
That’s what a lot of cattle farmers do, though most in this region on a smaller scale than Tipton. Sell at the market, and then buy some more to grow out. Sell those, and buy some more.
A red calf trots into the show arena. Tipton doesn’t much care for red calves.
“I just like black ones,” he said in explanation. “They seem to do a little better for us, and bring a little more per pound.”
That’s what this market opening is about — farmers being able to make money by raising cattle. Tipton approved the method of sale being used in Canton: “that’s the right way,” he said, apparently thinking of some markets that use other methods. Beef cattle in Canton are being sold by the pound — cows, on the other hand, are given a pregnancy test, “aged” and sold by the head.