Cash cows

October 10, 2009 at 11:00 AM • Filed under Arizona cattle round-up 2009

Should you eat a conventionally-raised steak or burger in the near future, think of the Willcox Livestock Auction. Your heifer or steer (for isn’t everything we take into our bodies “ours”?) may have passed through this place. Your cow would have gotten there in the back of a trailer, but humans get to it by driving down Business 191 through downtown Willcox, birthplace of “The Singing Cowboy,” Rex Allen, and passing such places as Trusty Rusty’s Auto Sales, the offices of Arizona Range News, and a handful of chiropractic businesses. (The number or chiropractors in Cochise County is alarmingly disproportionate to the number of residents.)

My aunt and I had some time to spare before the auction, so we stopped at the Rex Allen museum, located along Willcox’s one-block historic district. Like Johnny Appleseed for Leominster, Mass. and Frank Sinatra for Hoboken, N.J., Rex – whose height of popularity was in the 1940s and 50s – seems to be the town’s only claim to fame. Until I heard Rex yodel, I would have chuckled at this, too, but that guy could sing – and apparently from on top of a rearing horse, if the postcards are to be believed.

At quarter to 11 we drove over to the auction – a brick ranch building surrounded by numerous corrals and a parking lot. There were lots of trailers in the parking lot and a few men with thick necks chewing tobbaco and unloading cattle into the corrals. It seemed empty, though, and my aunt confirmed that things are bad now in the beef industry. (Could it be because things are bad in the dairy industry and dairy farmers who are being forced to cull some of their herds are flooding the market with beef?  Could things get even more intertwined in our modern food economy than they are today?) Since we weren’t allowed in the auction’s corrals we were unable to see my aunt’s cattle, but the cattle we did see didn’t look nearly as big and strong as hers.

Inside the building there was a front office and small café, where folks were laughing and catching up. There was a lot of frying going on in the café. We made our way to the auction area – a high-ceilinged, tan-paneled room with bleachers on one side, a small corral on the other, and a country radio station piped in on speakers. When the young woman who plopped down next to us began lavishing attention on her dog, I thought of the bad luck of cows. If humans had developed an appetite for dogs, and dogs were auctioned off here instead, would the young woman be sitting here with her pet heifer?

When the auction began, it was a blur. One, two, three cattle, sometimes more, would get jostled from the outside corrals into the small indoor pen, and everyone sitting on the bleachers would look at them. A handful of dour and serious men, who were clearly the buyers from feedlots and other ranches, nodded subtly to the auctioneer as he rattled off numbers. The cattle were feisty and disoriented, happy to be outta there after each final bid. I felt a bit disoriented, too, not only because of the auctioneer’s babble but because I was in place where animals were looked at less as living creatures to be revered but as potential profit. The cows seemed to lose their individuality in such an atmosphere. There was no one there to tell their stories.

Suffice it to say that the bids were low, according to my aunt. We left after half-an-hour and headed back to the ranch. My aunt’s cattle would be auctioned off later that afternoon. She will receive a check next week.

Does a round-up end after all the cows are in pens? Does it end when they’re sold at auction? Does it end with our next meal? Does it end when the questions we ask about the meat we eat are answered? I pulled out one of the CD’s we’d bought at the Rex Allen museum, and as we hurtled down the highway we listened to Rex sing a most fitting verse: 

                    All my life I’ve been a-ridin’ in the round-up
                    Punchin’ cattle’s been my life ‘til today
                    But the round-up is over 
                   And from now on I’m on my way…