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A familiar ring: West Fargo Stockyards, a piece of city’s history, still going strong

The sun rises on a Wednesday sale day at the West Fargo Stockyards. Photo by David Samson

Every Wednesday an auctioneer’s rapid-fire chant rings through sales arenas at the West Fargo Stockyards.

That’s been going on for 79 years.

A dozen head of bleating sheep sprint into the Sheep Palace sales pen.

“Are these just weened? They’re saying maa-maa-maa,” quips auctioneer Tony Heinze of Dazey, N.D.

He’s been doing this for 47 years.

“OK, we’ve got a nice consignment of lambs here today,” announces Wes Limesand, sheep sales manager for Central Livestock Association, which has owned the West Fargo Stockyards since 1988.

Sellers, buyers and spectators watch from metal bleachers, exchanging verbal digs and reveling in laughter with Heinze.

Kyle Severance just made a two-hour trip from Dickey, N.D., to sell 125 lambs.

Prices are good this year. “The last two years it wasn’t, but this year it’s good again,” he said.

A subtle nod or hand gesture sets off bidding. Some buyers draw bids by cellphone from off-site customers.

The sheep sale lasts about two hours.

“Thank you, guys, it’s been a lot of fun,” says Heinze as the day’s sale closes.

Severance says he did OK.

“I’m going to be able to pay Farm Credit this year,” he said. “Better than the last couple of years.”

It was a good sale, said Limesand. “Prices have been strong this year.”

Next up, the weekly cattle sale set to begin in a few minutes in the main stockyard arena.

“Cattle prices are at an all-time high,” said Mike Hilde, Central Livestock’s West Fargo market manager. “It’s long overdue.”

Only 100 head of cattle are sold this day. It’s the slow time of year, notes Hilde.

West Fargo cattle sales usually draw from 350 to 3,000 head; sheep from 150 to 500, he said.

“It depends on the time of year. Our busiest season is mid-September to mid-May,” said Hilde. “That’s when most of the feeder cattle are moving.”

Times have changed

At its peak, the former Union Stockyards 2,000 pens could handle 6,700 head of cattle, 1,900 hogs and 2,000 sheep at any given time. The biggest single-volume day was Feb. 13, 1985, when 6,475 cattle were sold, according to Forum archives.

Declining livestock numbers are the biggest change he’s seen during his career, said Heinze.

“We used to call five sales a week. Now we’re down to one a week,” he said.

West Fargo cattle sales are held every Wednesday, sheep once or twice a month and horses twice a year during spring and fall, said Hilde.

Retired buyer Larry McQuade recalls a Union Stockyards Labor Day sale that drew 6,000 head of cattle.

“They worked until 2 in the morning sorting and selling cattle and started back the next morning at 8 a.m.,” he said.

He now attends sales with son Chad McQuade, a third-generation cattle buyer working for American Foods.

“I’ve been coming to these places since I was 5 years old,” said Chad.

“I grew up with it,” said Chad McQuade. “I’ve always loved it.”

A festive start

Union Stockyards of South St. Paul, Minn., announced in April 1932 that it would establish a public livestock market in West Fargo.

Construction of the 182-pen facility, expected to cost $250,000, started the following year.

The first cattle auction was held during the first week of September 1935, nearly a month before the stockyards officially opened on Oct. 1.

The grand opening was celebrated with an “old-fashioned barbecue,” noted a Sept. 25, 1935 front-page story in the Fargo Forum.

“The invitation to attend the Union Stock Yards barbecue and partake of its results is a broadside one,” the story read. “It includes everyone and anyone from anywhere who can walk, ride or fly to West Fargo Oct. 1.”

Thirteen newly purchased stock-watering tanks were used to cook 7,000 pounds of barbecued beef over wood coals smoldering in ground trenches.

Coffee was brewed in a separate stock tank.

More than 25,000 people from across the Midwest attended the grand opening.

Today livestock barns scattered across the North Dakota countryside, in places like Devils Lake, Napolean, Rugby and Jamestown, work the market.

“It’s a very competitive business,” said Hilde. “We’ve got a good base of steady, loyal customers that have been here for many, many years.”

They farm and ranch within a 150-mile radius of West Fargo, he said, in North Dakota, Minnesota and some in South Dakota.

“We have some older guys that are retired that still stop by here on Wednesdays,” Hilde said. “Quite regularly actually. It’s kind of in their blood.”