By Mitchell Holder
The Gila County Cattle Growers Association was formally instituted during the depths of the Great Depression, on August 11, 1934. Cattlemen from throughout the county met in Globe and elected an initial slate of officers and twenty cattlemen to a Board of Directors. The goal of those 104 cattlemen to assemble was, as Miriam Boice stated, “to facilitate the will to survive.”
With this start, the organization of Gila County ranchers was a contributing participant in many of the challenges that they and other cattlemen in Arizona faced. Some of these would include Brucellosis certification, screwworm eradication, forest and public land administration and rules, and probably one the best county reward funds for livestock rustling ever produced.
A few years ago, one older renegade was overheard counseling a younger like-minded person, “Hell, you’re better off killing a man in Gila County than one of those cows.”
Probably the most important and far-reaching program that the GCCG Association ever created was the Gila County Cattle Growers annual spring yearling sale. Geographically, Gila County has a chance to have spring annual forage production that has to be seen to be believed in some years. Because of this, the USFS allows a spring yearling carryover, benefiting the country and the cattle as they utilize a bit of this forage and keep fire dangers less threatening.
As most of the rest of the West sells their calves in the fall, it was always very difficult to get even market prices. The buyers knew that all yearlings had to be removed by June 1st or a trespass would occur and the rancher’s permit would be jeopardized. It would take a book to describe what a rancher with a big mortgage faced in getting his calves sold, especially in the bad days of the 50’s.
Everybody was on their own. In the early 1960’s some forward-thinking members with input from a new County Extension Service Director, Pat Gray, created a marketing committee. They, in turn, established a yearling listing service to let buyers know what livestock was available. They worked very hard and bought ads with many ideas of what to describe and advertise. By the middle 1960’s it was apparent that the idea was not viable. In fact, somewhat ruefully, the 1964 minutes state, “not one reply to our ads was received from prospective buyers.”
In spite of this bad scenario, the leadership, Pat Gray, and cowmen seemed even more determined to help themselves develop a more equitable sales program. In 1966 the idea of building a Gila County Sale from the ground up was put into motion. The Marketing Committee and Pat Gray put together a “Sellers School” to acquaint prospective consignors to what they should do to get their yearlings bunched into sale-able groups.
The first sale was held at Buster Mounce’s Globe Stockyard on May 25, 1966. Eleven consignors and eight buyers participated. Jack Nelson from Willcox Livestock Auction did the auctioneering and clerked the sale. It was a huge success, with almost all of the 1,515 yearlings going to Colorado at a price above market.
The other ranchers that did not participate in 1966 were ready in 1967, and so many cattle were consigned (3,511) that the facilities were not adequate. Two sales and dates had to be established, and again, proceeds were at least 10 cents over market and all but 200 head went out of state to destinations such as Kansas, Illinois, and Nebraska. The cost to the rancher for selling an animal was set at $2.75 per head and there was a surplus.
The wrap-up meeting in 1967 recognized the need for better facilities, and a committee appointed by President Steve Bixby began a search for property and a method to fairly assess the cost of building a sale yard that probably would be used only once per year. Most of the leadership at that time had served the State of Arizona, City of Globe and Gila County very well in positions such as in the state legislature and various municipal and county offices. Their broad representation and influence paid off as Steve Bixby and Bob Boice were able to get a large tract of mine property leased at a stellar rate from Miami Copper Company. Quickly they assessed prospective consignors a rate of $10.00 per head on a 2,580-head facility for steers only at the Burch site. Heifers would continue to be sold at Globe Stockyards. Manger space was figured at 1 foot per animal for these Hereford steers that averaged around 475 pounds in 1967.
Some early experiences dictated more rules and procedures. Somehow nearly every major stumbling block was resolved by leadership in an equitable and fair manner. For instance, “sale order”: every rancher would like to pick when his cattle enter the ring to exercise a real or perceived benefit. This problem was addressed by using the off the I ranch truck weight in ascending order, selling from lightest on up. Small bunches (under 5 head) that could not be fitted sold at the end, which could help a buyer get a desired truck weight.
In these first sales it was also discovered that a Yardmaster had to be selected and that his word would have to be final as to applications of the sale rules. For instance, under the category of unmerchantable, stags would certainly be included. At times some consignors would insist that some of their yearlings were fresh-cut steers, not stags. The Yardmaster had to make the call, and his decision stood.
In 1977 additional pens were built at the Burch location, enabling the sale of both heifers and steers at one location. That entailed selling of the steers at an earlier hour, taking a lunch break and finishing the heifers in the afternoon. It turned out very fortuitous, in that some of the buyers appreciated the chance to check their situation, and it gave all assembled a chance to get a great meal provided by the Gila County Cowbelles.
There is no way to overestimate the contribution that the women of Gila County have made to this sale. Some of the same ladies help sort cattle, clerk the sale and prepare and or serve food for the Cowbelles lunch, all in the same day.
There are so many individuals who have had a real impact on this sale, and we could never list them all correctly or thank them enough. By the 70’s every task associated with the sale was done by the membership except the auctioneering.
Until 1982 there were never any less than 3,500 animals sold. After that it would be 10 years before that level could be attained again … and that only by allowing out of county native cattle to be consigned.
Until 1970 every head sold was a Hereford, but in that year, 6 black white-faced heifers were consigned and accepted with lots of reservations and some acrimony. That same year the average weight of the 4,650 (most ever) yearlings was just over 500 pounds, and the price was under 40 cents per pound, equaling a $200 yearling. In 2002 the average weight was over 600 pounds, with the price in the high 80’s, to make a $400 yearling – with very few Herefords available.
2003 through 2005 were the “lost years” for Gila County ranching families. In 2002, a very dry year, Tonto Forest Service personnel ordered an unprecedented almost entire destocking of the Tonto Forest, allegedly due to drought. This was an unfortunate and unnecessary knee-jerk reaction by the TNF when in fact there had been previous droughts of similar magnitude without such drastic measures being enforced. When this happened many longtime ranching families could not afford to restock after the forced liquidation of their entire herds.
There are very few original ranching families left to carry on the tradition handed down to them, even though the Tonto is slowly allowing restocking. The real costs to replace a completely wiped out, well acclimated and genetically adapted herd are exponentially beyond the current high price for each replacement animal.
All that said, the Gila County Cattle Growers have battled “issues” as long as there has been the concept of multiple use lands designated for grazing in the West. We are pleased with our winter rains this year that have provided lush forage, and we expect our spring sale to be filled with the high-quality cattle this part of the country has become known for. We hope to be doing this for a long time to come, and we remember the reason we come together to sell our cattle is to “facilitate the will to survive,” as Gila County ranchers wished to do when we first organized in 1934.
Author’s note: This information and more is available in Miriam Boice’s “A Summary – Gila County Cattle Growers Association – 1933-2002.”